Guide to Mental Models in User Experience Design

What are mental models and how do they apply to user experience design? Your Guide to decoding the user experience.

Guide to Mental Models in User Experience Design

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

Mental models are the key to decoding the user experience by aligning perception and function intuitively, let’s take look at how mental models help shape user experience.


Simply put, a mental model is knowing “what the user perceives and thinks about the system in hand.”

Let’s understand it by an example. Open any app or website; let’s say it’s an online shopping app. You very well know how to search for the product you’re looking for, add it to the cart, and see your wishlist with minimal cognitive effort.

It doesn’t matter which app it is; you quickly become comfortable and perform your next moves smoothly. This is the mental model built in your brain, making it easier for you to use almost any app with complete ease as long as it matches your interaction pattern. 

Creating a mental model in user experience or UX design is nothing but decoding users’ mental models and creating designs that match their intuitions and make them engaging.

If you don’t understand users’ existing mental models and create something haywire that doesn’t align with their perception, there will be a mismatch between their idea of how a product should work and how it actually works. This unfamiliar and unpredictable user interface will confuse them and, ultimately, prompt them to leave the app.


How to Match User’s Mental Model? 

Observe. See. Feel – the patterns and the behaviors of a user when they use a product. Often called user testing, this exercise helps designers interpret a person’s thought process to define how he will approach and solve the problem.

Now, when it comes to using a website or an app, the user comes with prior knowledge and experience to use your web or app. And to match their current mental model with your product, you must design the UI elements and information architecture in a way that perfectly fits their mental model. Connecting their familiar dots with the new ones’ will help them navigate smoothly and accomplish their goal on your application.


How to Design UI Elements That Matches User’s Mental Model? 

To design a visually speaking UX, you must know the key to creating designs that fit user expectations and motivate them to complete the action. UX designers can follow these design practices to integrate mental models into the UX design process.

Image Source: Codiant

1. Discover the User Base and Create the Right Persona 

Finding your target user is a brilliant way to start with. It’s pretty obvious not all users have the same mental models. By filtering out your target user, you can design a UI in a way that suits their thought process.

For example, let’s say your app aims to be built for older adults. Here visual cues will play an essential role in making the interactions more straightforward and accessible.

Like clever use of font weights using dot points and spaced text will increase the readability and make it simple to grasp the information. Further, using the right amount of contrasts between the text and its background, increased dimensions of UI elements, and self-explanatory labels on buttons will only simplify the navigation and make them digitally fluent.

So, when starting with creating a user persona, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Who are the target users?
  2. What goal are they trying to achieve?
  3. What’s preventing them from solving their problem?

Solving this will mature your mental models for the upcoming design stages.



2. Sort the Cards to Determine How Users Categorize Information 

The card sorting exercise is a UX research technique to identify how your users’ existing mental model find their way around your site.

Basically, through this process, you’re trying to determine how your customer base will navigate and whether they can quickly achieve their goals and find what they need.

It will help UX designers cross-verify their information architecture and clarify if it fits into the user’s expectations.

To conduct a card sorting exercise, you can move step-wise through this process:

  1. Choose a set of topics that represents the site’s main content
  2. Shuffle the cards and ask the user to organize topics into groups
  3. Ask the user to name the groups
  4. Repeat this with 15-20 users
  5. Analyze the data and look for common groups that were frequently paired together.

It will help you organize content that suits your users’ mental model rather than having your POV imposed on the information architecture.


3. Wireframing and Prototyping 

Wireframes or prototypes are just another way, quite simpler, to discover your user’s mental model.

Just begin by designing the screens with the required features, elements, or UI components you want to test. Invite a group of users and do a think-aloud session.

In this session, users will verbalize their thoughts, predictions, and beliefs while navigating through your application. Consequently, this will clear the clouds of probability and unveil your users thought processes by bringing more clarity. 



4. Heat Map Visualization 

Heatmap is one good visualization technique to understand how users interact with each element on your website. It helps you to see where your visitors click and where they don’t.

Having this information, you can gauge the areas that are getting more interactions and make necessary changes to your web page.

The most essential mental models-based UX design heat maps are scroll maps, click maps, hover maps, and eye-tracking heat maps.


Summing Up! 

Mental models play a vital role in creating both UI and UX design.

Decoding the user’s mental models, built in their brains, from their past interactions with websites, mobile apps, and other digital products can help UX designers to develop a super easy, interactive application with a high engagement rate.

Hopefully, you find this article insightful in understanding what mental models are, and it helps you carry out user experience design fully.