Notes from a UX Pro Over a Cup of Joe: Mental Models

Louisa Katlubeck

Louisa Katlubeck


Louisa Katlubeck is a User Experience (UX) Designer at ICS. Louisa is involved with all aspects of user experience design on varied projects, with a specific focus on wire framing new applications and has extensive experience in Usability Testing.

By Louisa Katlubeck | Monday, October 27, 2014

Welcome back to the coffee corner!  

I hope that you’re doing well and enjoying your user experience (UX) rock star status on any project you may be working on, no matter your role. Today, we’re going to be chatting about Mental Models - what they are, why we should care about them and how we can leverage them to inform design thinking.

What are Mental Models?

Mental models are essentially just that - mental representations for how people view and make sense of the world.  When people interact with new information or a new consumer device for the first time, they make sense of it by fitting it into one of their pre-existing mental models.  Have you or a friend ever picked up a new-to-you phone or tablet, turned it on and said “huh, so this looks like (insert your favorite familiar consumer electronic system here), I think I can figure this out pretty easily.”  Sound familiar?  That’s the power of designing using mental models in action.

Why We Care About Mental Models

In a very loose sense, mental models can also be thought of as design metaphors. Designing new interfaces using navigation, terminology or organizational concepts that users are already familiar with will help users feel instantly comfortable with the new system. They will feel the system is recognizable to them and that they know intuitively what to do. This makes our users feel smart and in control, rather than frustrated and confused. Helping to make users feel knowledgeable works, because people generally, like to feel smart.  If our device can make them feel smart, they will be more likely to enjoy the experience, possibly recommending it to friends and colleagues. This would be a win-win for all involved.

Leveraging Mental Models

Designing user interfaces utilizing mental models is really about being aware of how our users think and interact with devices. Knowing things such as workflow, task order and any preferences for example, such as gesture vs. mouse control, tablet vs. phone vs. desktop or voice activation, will help us design the right interface for the right user.   

Designing devices with mental models in mind, we can create interfaces that users are instinctively comfortable and familiar with. Ultimately, successful experiences can lead to successful products – and this friends, will make anyone a rock star!

Until our next coffee break, if you have questions about how best to incorporate mental models in to your UX plan, contact us – we would love to partner with you and discuss how we can help you create intuitive, easy-to-use interfaces!



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