Leveraging Mental Models in Product Design

Miklos Philips
Feb 3 · 11 min read
Through repeated use, users form mental models of how apps and devices should work.

What Is a Mental Model?

The car seat setting in a Mercedes is a great example of an interaction design that uses a mental model. A car seat shape for controls makes it intuitively easy to understand and operate.

Misaligned User Mental Models

Misalignment of mental models occurs when there is a discrepancy between a user’s mental model and how a particular design actually works. This kind of disconnect creates usability problems, as the product doesn’t align with the user’s expectations and existing knowledge. The window for capturing a user’s attention and confidence is small, so misalignment can spell disaster.

Mental models mismatch in action: The recently redesigned Skype UI confuses people and slows them down due to its use of non-standard dialogs where options presented don’t look like standard buttons.

Improving Misaligned Mental Models

Usability testing and other UX research methods help reveal discordance between the designed experience and users’ mental models. Furthermore, gaps between mental models can be improved with interactive tours, careful onboarding, real-time feedback, and/or signifiers to assist in learning new product features and a new UI.

Google made sweeping changes to the UI and behavior of Google Calendar, a product which had not changed much in many years. By warning and allowing them to opt in over several months, Google empowered its users to decide when to change their mental models of how the product should work.
Slack uses interactive tours to help new users learn the interface and efficiently improves any contradictory mental models users may have.

Designing on a Foundation of Mental Models

Jakob’s Law of the Internet User Experience states that “users spend most of their time on websites other than yours. Thus, a big part of customers’ mental models of your site will be influenced by information gleaned from other sites.”

Mental Model Research

It’s common for UX designers to create journey maps and empathy maps, and to use data to help identify user pain points when creating a new product (or improving one). When it comes to mental models, the same UX research methods and processes can be applied to the study of an existing competitor or peer products.

Users of competing and/or related systems can be studied to find out how they are working currently, their current mental models, and what their pain points are.

Mirroring Existing UX

The world’s most popular apps are directly influenced by one another, and they regularly implement designs based on existing mental models. For example, Facebook introduced the interaction pattern of “Likes,” which were then copied by LinkedIn and Instagram.

Facebook Messenger’s UI mirrors Snapchat, capitalizing on existing mental models. Users of one popular app will have no trouble using and enjoying the other.

Mental Models and Skeuomorphism

Skeuomorphism is a term that is used to describe interface objects that mirror real-world counterparts in how they appear and/or how the user can interact with them. This design concept capitalizes on users’ existing knowledge and mental models of an actual object so they don’t need to learn a new interface.

Even completely abstracted, the average user will likely know that what they are looking at is a set of switches to turn on and off as desired. Google’s Material Design system uses very flat visual design and iconography but leverages common UI patterns based on physical metaphors to ensure optimal usability.
Digital audio plugins often emulate analog gear, such as compressors, equalizers, and reverb units. Utilizing skeuomorphic design capitalizes on existing mental models. The bottom left plugin uses skeuomorphic design, while the bottom right plugin does not.

Foundational Creativity and Innovation

In order to maximize usability, it’s important to design on a foundation of mental models. Creating and innovating within existing mental models and standards can bring about new and exciting products that still align with user expectations. Violating those mental models should be done strategically and only when necessary.

From left to right: Volume slider representing the common mental model, a volume slider contradicting the common mental model, and volume slider from Apple’s iOS, utilizing the common mental model in a new design

Final Thoughts

Conducting UX research on established designs will help clarify existing mental models and enable designers to leverage those of their product users’. The findings, in turn, will help designers optimize the usability of any digital product.


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Miklos Philips

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User Experience

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