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What is a mental model and how is it applied to UX?

Maria Pretel
February 21, 2024

What is a mental model?

A mental model is a set of knowledge, beliefs, and expectations that a person has about the world and how it works. These mental models allow us to interpret and understand the information we receive from the world and make decisions and actions based on that information.

In the field of user experience (UX), the user's mental model is an important aspect to consider as it can affect how the user interacts with a system or product and how they perceive its usability.

ilustration of a blonde woman swiping screens virtually in augmented reality

The concept of a mental model was first introduced by cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner in the 1950s and has been developed and studied by various authors since then, including Don Norman in his book "The Design of Everyday Things." Norman argues that mental models are essential for the user experience as they allow us to anticipate how a system or product will work and how to interact with it effectively.

How to investigate users' mental models?

To investigate the user's mental model in the context of UX, there are several research techniques that can be useful. Some of these techniques include:

  • In-depth interviews: In-depth interviews are an effective way to obtain detailed information about the user's mental model. These interviews are usually longer and more structured than informal interviews and can be conducted in person or via video call. In-depth interviews can be useful for gathering information about the user's expectations and how they interpret and understand information about the system or product.

ilustration of two people holding a conversation on a pink table

  • User testing: Usability testing is a way to evaluate how the user interacts with a system or product and can provide valuable information about the user's mental model. Usability tests may include specific tasks that the user must perform with the system or product and can be conducted in person or through online platforms. The results of usability testing can provide information about the user's mental model and how it affects their interaction with the system or product.

ilustration of a woman looking at multiple screens on her desk

  • Observation: Observation is another useful technique for investigating the user's mental model. This can include participant observation, where the researcher actively participates in the user's activities. This technique allows us to observe people's lives and their relationship with their environment, thus gaining a better understanding of their reality and behaviors, along with the social meanings they possess. Therefore, this technique is valuable for understanding users' mental models as it delves into their needs, product conception, integration into their reality, and usage.

 

  • Content analysis: Content analysis is a technique used to examine the content of a system or product to gather information about the user's mental model. This may include analyzing the organization and presentation of information, as well as identifying symbols and conventions that may affect user understanding. Content analysis can provide valuable information about the user's mental model and how it affects their interpretation and understanding of system or product information.

illustration of a man holding a magnifying glass looking at a huge phone with a search box

  • Card Sorting: Card sorting is a user experience (UX) research technique used to understand how users organize and categorize information in their minds. This technique can help identify patterns and cognitive structures that users apply to your content or product, allowing you to define and draw the users' mental model and adapt the information architecture accordingly.

Illustration of a woman putting puzzle pieces together

Conclusions

Taking into account the user's mental model in the design of systems and products can help ensure that the system or product is easy to use and understand, contributing to a positive user experience. It is important to remember that the user's mental model may vary between individuals and may change over time, so it is important to test with users to assess the mental model and ensure that the system or product meets user expectations and needs.

It is important to note that the user's mental model is not the only factor that affects the user experience. Other factors such as usability, visual design, and functionality are also important and should be considered in the design of a system or product.

Resources

To learn more about the mental model and its application in user experience, there are many resources available online and in books. Some examples include:

Cover of the book The design of everyday things

Cover of the book Human Computer Interaction

There are also many blogs and websites dedicated to the topic of user experience that provide information and resources on the mental model and how to apply it in the design of systems and products.

 

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