How understanding human mental models drives better UX design

Josh Smith, UX Director at Luminary, explains why the user experience is different for every person and how understanding mental models dramatically improves UX design.

Josh Smith

By Josh Smith, 25 May 20216 minute read

User Experience (UX) design is not, as the name would suggest, about “designing a user experience”. A user is a human and humans have broader and individualistic considerations to consider - an individual’s impression of a product is, therefore, a result not just of the product itself but of the way that individual perceives it. And perception is influenced by the mental models each person uses to process and make sense of the world. Sounds confusing? Here’s how it all works.

What is a mental model?

A mental model is a person’s reconstruction of how the world works; how an individual makes sense of reality. It’s that picture people have in their mind about the external environment, how relationships between different parts of the world interrelate and how they understand the consequences of their actions.

A mental model is a unique, personal thing, constructed essentially out of beliefs, not provable facts. This leads to two important insights for UX designers: 

Mental models help describe how individuals see the world differently, based on their personal experiences and beliefs. While there are usually similarities across mental models, there are also important differences that must be understood and addressed in order to optimise the user experience.

1. Because mental models are built out of beliefs, they can’t ever be wrong (or right).

2. Each person carries around a different mental model about how the world works, although there are often many similarities between individuals’ beliefs.

Both of these insights are significant for a UX designer because when you consider mental models, design becomes less about a prescriptive discipline and more about keying into what an individual human is thinking, feeling, doing and experiencing. The UX process becomes one of empathy and understanding, and developing techniques to uncover and predict through which lens others see the world.

“UX is about empathising with an individual’s point of view and hopefully solving a problem for them.”

Mental models and UX 

You can’t control a user’s experience to the extent of designing it. Instead, UX is about creating a positive impression for a human user of a product. So how do you go about doing that? 

The important thing is to be very wary about making assumptions about how a design will be consumed or understood by users without having insight into how these design elements will be perceived through the individual lenses of mental models.

There are two key ways to generate insight about mental models – UX research and UX testing.

Understanding mental models through research

Research helps avoid one of the critical pitfalls of UX design – assumptions. When we conduct UX research, what we are really looking for are the common themes and frames of reference and also the key differences across the mental models people carry.

Primarily, what we want to understand through research is the process by which people go about trying to solve a problem – so that we can meet them there.

AGL research case study

The purpose of the UX research was to understand how AGL customers would approach a task set by their energy supplier. Energy bills are often based on estimates, and the problem the client was trying to solve on behalf of its customers was how to make energy readings and the corresponding bills more accurate.

The task was for the customers to record their energy meter number and send it to AGL, however, they were not given any instruction about how to collect or send the information. It wasn’t so much the outcome we were interested in – it was the approach individuals took to solve the problem.

The research uncovered some valuable insights. Firstly, AGL had assumed that customers would know where their meter was. And for many customers, this was not the case because they had never previously had any reason to look for it.

Secondly, people had very different ideas about how to record their meter numbers, ranging from using a pen and paper to taking a photo with a camera, to expecting a technology-based, automated solution like OCR.

What we learned was primarily about how the customers both made sense of the problem and what approach made sense to them as a way to solve it. This sort of information drives a really effective UX solution because not only do we see common themes and opportunities, we also get a deep understanding of how these individuals see, think about and interpret the problem they are faced with.

Understanding mental models through testing

While research is a great way to disprove or confirm assumptions prior to design, sometimes assumptions need to be made in order for a project to progress. This is where testing becomes an important strategy to understand whether assumptions built into a prototype of the product stand up in the real world.

Apple Watch testing case study

The purpose of the UX testing was to understand how ANZ customers would respond to a banking app on an Apple watch. At the time, there hadn’t been a banking app on an Apple watch in Australia before. While the customers had a good understanding of the device, the concept of banking with one was completely new.

We were interested in seeing how the customers approached and completed a series of tasks set for them. The tasks included setting up the app on their watch, adding cards to it and making payments.

The UX testing involved gaining a thorough understanding of how easy it was for customers to complete common banking tasks and how the customers’ expectations about the product compared to their experiences using it. In this way, the assumptions built into the prototype of the app could be tested against the expectations and experiences of the users.

The golden rule of UX: Never ask users what they want

The key idea behind understanding mental models and using them to inform UX design is that it’s not about meeting the desires of the users – it’s about building something that solves a fundamental problem in their lives.

Rather than using UX to drive user expectation, success is achieved by meeting those expectations. The ultimate goal of UX then is to end up with alignment between the way a designer sees a problem being laid out and fixed and what the end-user is expecting that solution to be. That’s a really important idea to grasp, and it underpins 

so many of the fundamental ways we address mental models, including:

·  Posing a problem and asking users to tell us stories about what they do

·  Observing

·  Listening

·  Setting challenges

·  Looking for patterns

·  Understanding the beliefs that underpin action

Think of it like the famous quote attributed to Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Users can articulate their problem – in this case, getting to their destination faster – but they are not necessarily equipped to design the best solution to solve it. As UX designers, that’s our job, and it’s not a job we can do well without understanding the user’s needs from the user’s perspective.

Integrating mental models into UX design

There is a fair bit of complexity involved when it comes to mental models because we are trying to find commonalities across users’ understanding, beliefs, experiences and needs.

A strategic approach is needed to balance conflicting time, budget, research and testing requirements. The way we handle this is to prioritise research and testing for things where we know there may be a lot of different beliefs contained within individual users’ mental maps.

We can also prioritise testing for features that we think are really confusing or hard for customers to understand or tools that might be especially complicated for them to comprehend.

The key outtake is to always understand the end-user as a human and have an openness and understanding of how differently people can see the world at times. UX is about empathising with an individual’s point of view and hopefully solving a problem for them.

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