Join David Hogue for an in-depth discussion in this video Mental models, part of UX Foundations: Interaction Design.
- We don't just perceive and remember the world around us, we also strive to understand it and make sense of how it works. We form concepts by taking our experiences and the information we have gained, breaking them down into meaningful pieces and sorting them into general rules or related groups. We use all of these connections, or associations, the information structures or schemas and concepts to form mental models. Mental models are our thoughts and expectations about how things work in the real world and they influence how we behave, solve problems and perform tasks.
They also help us decide what to do. When designing a new product we need to consider people's mental models, so that we can make it easier for them to understand, use and gain benefit from it. For example we have concepts about what a car is, and we have mental models for how it works and how to drive it. We can get behind the wheel of almost any type of car and successfully operate it even though we may have never driven that type of car before. When we encounter a new situation such as an electric car we look for similarities to our previous experiences and we make decisions about how to operate it based on our mental models.
The electric car has no gas engine and may not have a key for ignition, but it still has a steering wheel, accelerator and brakes. So with a little exploration and experimentation we're able to drive this new type of car successfully. There are actually three different types of models we need to distinguish. Mental models reside in the minds of the people using the product. This is what determines their expectation of how it should work and how they might interact with it. Research helps us identify and define people's expectations for a product or process so that we can either design something that aligns with their mental model or we can design a way to help them learn a new method, or interaction.
The conceptual model is how the product is designed to work and it resides in the minds of the people who created the product. If the conceptual model, the design, is well aligned with the person's mental model, their expectation and understanding, then they're likely to find that the product easy to understand. For example, even though an electric car holds no gasoline, it still has a fuel gauge to keep the driver informed about the battery level for estimated time and distance remaining.
But if the design of the product does not align with the person's mental model, then they're likely to find that the product confusing and difficult. Research and testing helps us align the person's mental model with the product team's conceptual model. The system model is how the product actually works. Products and processes are often much more complicated than we realize because the part we interact with has been designed to make it easy to use and the complexity has been concealed.
For example a cars chassis and internal combustion engine or electric motor is a very complex machine, but most people's mental model of driving involves only two pedals and a wheel. We do not need to understand the engine, differential steering or anti-lock breaking to drive a car. Our mental model for driving is a very simplified model of a car. The system model, how the car actually works, is not apparent and we do not need to understand it to drive safely.
When a system model is exposed it nearly always makes the product feel more difficult or confusing to use. So it's our responsibility to understand how something really works, the system and design an interface, the conceptual model, to make it easy to use because that's aligned with the person's mental model.
- What is interaction design?
- Learning behaviors
- Theories of emotion
- Designing for delight
- Classical and operant conditioning
- Using learned behavior
- Interface design principles
- Design thinking
- Defining microinteractions
- Error handling
- Usability and accessibility