Half of UX is 90% Mental

My old apartment building in Athens, Georgia was situated on a hill. As a result, the entry floor of the parking garage was the third floor of the complex.  Initially, the elevator company had also mislabeled the buttons, so in addition to an already confusing system where I entered and exited the complex from the third floor, I had to remember that the “2nd” floor was actually the “4th..” (Are you confused yet?)

For the first few weeks in the building, every trip to the elevator was tinged with a stop, a pause, and mild frustration. My mental model said that the garage should be on the lowest floor (not in the middle) and that I lived on the second floor (not the one labeled ‘4’.) Luckily, management relabeled the elevator buttons shortly after, however, even after the relabeling the elevator buttons didn’t fully match my mental model.

What are mental models and how do they affect the user experience?

Which way is up?

To put it simply, a mental model is a person’s intuition of how something works based on past experiences, knowledge, or common sense. Think for a moment, about the checkout process to your favorite online retailer. Imagine the interface. Imagine yourself using it to purchase an item. What are you picturing? This picture — or assumed idea — is your mental model. In practice, if your mental model matches how the actual interface works, we can say that interface is intuitive. It’s like saying “The user gets it” before they’ve even seen the application.

When it comes to online experiences, users expect a certain flow based on both previous experiences, and an expectation on what the experience should be. A great example is the checkout process of an online store; most users have made a purchase online before and thus have certain expectations, or mental models of what the process for checking out should be.When that process doesn’t match the mental model of the user, confusion can set in causing the experience to turn negative. Users get nervous, anxious and lose confidence, panicking that they’ve done something wrong. Or worse, they accidentally buy something twice, or inadvertently remove items from the shopping cart. The resulting consequences are huge: users will be more cautious in making a future purchase from the site, may look for other places to shop, and potentially tell friends to avoid the retailer as well. In short, bad user experiences yield bad business.

However, if the site’s flow matches the mental models associated with that flow and if the interface is intuitive, then the resulting experience is generally one of confidence and satisfaction. Take Google’s search engine: The process doesn’t rely on extremely elaborate interfaces or fancy designs to be successful. Instead, the flow focuses on the user, by creating a simple yet extremely effective and intuitive interface for searching and providing quick, easy ways to accomplish online search tasks. Google’s success as an entity was built (at least in part) one successful user experience at a time.

Most-Likely Mental Models

Couldn’t multiple users have multiple mental models? Absolutely. In actuality, an interface will never match up with every mental model because the number of possible models ranges from one to thousands. However, you can create interfaces to match the most-likely mental models for your users.  Determining the most-likely models is where user personas, research, prototyping and user testing come into play.

To create a successful user experience for actual users, designers — whether in-house or agency-based —  must know about the users, including their needs, habits, expectations, experiences, and preferences. Through this knowledge designers and agencies will better understand how users work and create an interface appropriate to the users’ needs, preferences, and of course, their mental models. Once the interface is designed, agencies and designers should conduct user testing with the target audience to validate that the interface meets the users’ mental models.

Successful user experiences: more than interface design

Part of perfecting the user experience is to present content, structure navigation and interface elements that make sense. In other words, it’s about mapping to a user’s intuition.

Taking that further, an interface is about presenting meaningful content and a well designed information architecture. Aligning the system with the user’s mental models adds to an intuitive and successful user experience, one that’s effortless, satisfying, and often more enjoyable.

Help your interface provide a successful user experience by following these tips:

  • Step outside your realm of thinking and consider your target audience and their expectations; provide intuitive, useful methods for them to achieve their goals and tasks. After all, it’s about your users.
  • Keep it simple; don’t move commonly placed elements or throw superfluous “stuff” in their way. When in doubt, get rid of it; it’s easy to add back in later, if it’s really needed.
  • Make it fast; In the web world, time is of the essence; make your new methods easily identifiable. Remember that familiarity is comfortable and leads to faster learning curves.

Additionally, simple prototypes of systems and usability testing can go a long way in weeding out issues and reducing confusion before applications and interfaces reach the target audience.

Google has a mantra: “Follow the user and all else will follow.”  By following your users, designing for their mental models and listening their feedback you can ultimately provide a solid, successful user experience the user can relate to.

How do you identify and address your users’ mental models? How do you create new ones? Leave us a comment with your mental model challenges.

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