Mental Models; A Guide to how your Users Really Think | by Faith Olohijere

UX Planet
Palmihelp on Stock Photos

Understanding users’ mental models is one aspect of the UX design process that is frequently overlooked. Some designers fail to realise that you have to understand the existing mental models of your users, before you design for them. Before we continue, however, what exactly is a mental model?

What is a Mental Model?

A mental model is the explanation of people’s thought process on how something works in the real world. It is a way of understanding and interpreting informations and situations.

….. the sum total of what a person believes about the situation at hand, how it functions and how it’s organised. -Erika Hall, Just Enough Research

Mental models are intuitive ideas or beliefs which evolve over time, something every human carries in their heads from different experiences. For example, everyone understands that trees convert sunlight into energy through the process of photosynthesis. This is a mental model that helps us understand how trees grow and how they are able to provide necessary oxygen for life on earth.

In UX Design, a mental model is how a user expects your design to work; the mental representations that users have of your product. For example, users expect to be able to return to the homepage of a website or app by clicking on the home icon. This is a mental model which helps users navigate their way around a site and find their way back to a starting point.

Why bother about Mental Models?

As a UX Designer, you already have existing mental models, born from experiences and interactions you’ve had. It is important to be aware of your mental models, in order to be able to set them aside while designing for your users.

In the same way, your target/already existing users have some mental models. UX Designers need to understand the mental models of their users in order to create designs that are intuitive and easy to use; designs that align with the user’s expectations. Some of the reasons a UX Designer should understand their user’s mental models include:

  1. To create intuitive designs: When you understand a user’s mental model, you are able to create designs that are familiar to your users and use languages and concepts that are relevant to them in your designs.
  2. It improves your problem-solving skills: Knowing how your users think can give you insights on possible problems they might encounter while using your products. This can inform the design process and help you, the designer, to create solutions that better addresses the needs and concerns of your users.
  3. To improve user engagement: When users are satisfied with the experience they have while interacting with your product, they would want to interact more with it. This would improve user rentention and loyalty.

How to Understand users’ Mental Models

There are couple of ways to understand the mental models of your users, including:

  1. Carrying out user research
  2. Seeking out expert reviews and opinions
  3. Conducting data analysis

Though understanding your users’ mental model is a combination of both research and analysis, carrying out user research is one of the best ways to understand a user’s mental model. After all, what better way to understand a person than to interact with them?

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