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Designing With Mental Model Diagrams — An Introduction

Better products and services start with understanding people

  1. We’re now looking after products shared across Australia, Asia and in the future other regions. This means that we may need to adapt solutions based on region, channel or both. This also translates in getting yet more insights, but this time from different markets. It’s crucial that we can bring together these insights and identify potential similarities or differences.
  2. In the past, teams have mapped experiences through customer journey maps. While useful, these methods of mapping tended to lack a high level of depth around needs and the problems people face. They also proved difficult to scale by adding new information on top of them.

What is a mental model

Many of the models and diagrams we show in this article are based on Indi Young’s work¹¹. However, the term “mental model” has a long history.

Why mental models are useful

In Human-Computer Interaction and Interaction Design, we often talk about the concept of mental models⁹. However, the discussions tend to be on how we can design a product or a service. For example, if we want to build a new ATM interface, we may consider how people think about ATMs, as this can impact their expectations and behaviours. It’s then all about the solution, as we look to optimise the end-product.

The structure of a mental model diagram

Mental model diagrams are artefacts that are built around a framework that follows certain rules and processes. Commonly, we break down the structure of a mental model diagram into 2 parts:

  1. A solution space — In the bottom part of the diagram, we identify how solutions and competitors align with the things people want to get done in the problem space. We can be quite flexible on how we present this information and use different ways of styling the information. For example, we use colour coding to rate how well we believe a solution is working to support a specific need.
A mental model diagram is composed of a problem and a solution space
Fig. 1 — The structure of a mental model diagram. The top section is how people reason and feel through a domain of interest — i.e., the problem space. In the bottom section we list solutions as they align (or not) with what goes on in the top section.

How we structure the problem space

In a mental model diagram, we build the problem space using qualitative research, using either semi-structured or unstructured interviews. We capture data as close as possible to the language people use, and we analyse it and synthesise it using a bottom-up approach. The result is a series of grounded insights that we organise using a 3-level hierarchy:

  1. The tower level — As we identify how a series of tasks comes together through affinity mapping, we cluster them into towers. A tower is a series of tasks that explain what drives more concrete behaviours or emotional responses, but at a higher level of abstraction.
  2. The mental space level — At the highest level of the hierarchy, we have mental spaces. Again, by grouping together towers, we identify higher-level goals that are closer to the “why” that’s motivating people. Mental spaces are placed at the very top of the hierarchy and are its more abstract layer.
A mental model diagram is usually built using 3 levels. A mental space level, a tower level, and a task/box level.
Fig. 2 (1) A task or a box, focusing on more immediate behaviour and specific goals; (2) A tower, which encapsulates tasks within a higher-level goal; (3) A mental space that includes a series of towers, representing the highest level of the hierarchy and the goal or intent that more closely explains the “why” of more concrete and lower-level behaviours.
  1. Hierarchies make it easy to add new insights. They offer us a strict structure and higher-level goals tend to be more stable over time¹. The more we know about a domain, the easier it is to build on it. We move from a bottom-up approach to a top-down one, where adding new information is akin to seeing where a piece of evidence fits in the bigger puzzle. Additionally, humans easily connect with the concept of a hierarchy, as they’ve been part of how we’ve experienced the world for thousands of years⁸.
  2. With hierarchies, we can add new layers of analysis without changing the underlying structure. For example, we can analyse what the data is telling us at the task/box layer, identifying groups of people that share commonalities at this level (e.g., customer segments/personas). With a hierarchy, we can do this without changing anything above or below this level.
Goals can be defined along a continuum, ranging from quite specific and operation to broad and aspirational.
Fig. 3 — A breakdown of motivated action using a hierarchy of how, what and why (adopted from [6]). The idea is that higher-level goals/psychological needs are closer to the person and direct lower-level goals and behaviours. The arrows indicate the level of detail we usually aim for when building a hierarchy for a mental model diagram.

Building more complex models

Mental models diagrams aren’t the only approach we can use to capture people’s experiences. Like we’ve mentioned, customer journey maps are a great way to show how people engage with an organisation⁷. However, customer journey maps tend to be static, as raw data is heavily synthesised to create the artefact. This makes it hard to include new insights without changing their structure.

An example of a mental model diagram layered with different types of information.
Fig. 4 — An excerpt of a diagram layered with information, both at the problem and solution space levels.


Hopefully, we’ve managed to shed some light on the value we believe mental model diagrams bring to organisations.


We want to thank Caylie Panuccio, Mimi Turner and Pete Collins for their feedback and help in reviewing and improving this article.


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  2. Carver, C. S. and Scheier, M. F. (1998). On the Self-Regulation of Behavior. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
  3. Christensen, G. L. and Olson, J. C. (2002). Mapping consumers’ mental models with ZMET. Psychology & Marketing, 19(6):477–501.
  4. Craik, K. (1943). The nature of explanation.
  5. Gutman, J. (1997). Means–end chains as goal hierarchies. Psychology & marketing, 14(6):545–560.
  6. Hassenzahl, M. (2010). Experience Design: Technology for All the Right Reasons. Synthesis Lectures on Human-Centered Informatics. Morgan & Claypool Publishers.
  7. Lemon, K. N. and Verhoef, P. C. (2016). Understanding customer experience throughout the customer journey. Journal of marketing, 80(6):69–96.
  8. Payne, S. J. (2007). Mental models in human-computer interaction. In The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook, pages 89–102. CRC Press.
  9. Valdez, A. C., Ziefle, M., Alagoz, F., and Holzinger, A. (2010). Mental models of menu structures in diabetes assistants. In International Conference on Computers for Handicapped Persons, pages 584–591. Springer
  10. Wright, A. (2008). Glut: Mastering information through the ages. Cornell University Press.
  11. Young, I. (2008). Mental models: aligning design strategy with human behavior. Rosenfeld Media.
  12. Young, I. and Mangalam, K. (2017). Launching problem space research in the frenzy of software production. interactions, 25(1):66–69.



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