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Mental models in UX

November 5th, 2020 / Product design

What are mental models?

Mental models play an important role in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Interaction Design.
They relate to the way a user perceives the world around them and are based on beliefs. However, if you can understand the mental models of your users, you can simulate these models within your designs to make them more usable and intuitive .

Mental models are the beliefs a user has about any given system or interaction. In most cases, the belief will resemble the real-life model to some extent. This is important because users will plan and predict future actions within a system based on their mental models.

A quick example.

Let's take a Hamburger menu as an example. As a user, what do you expect to happen when you click on it? There you go! It's that belief prior to your action, that thing we believe should happen right after we interact with the application. That defines our mental model.

In this case, we can be sure that most users expect a side menu to be displayed, but.... Why? Well, it has a lot to do with how our brain works and past experiences.

Side menu not displayed
Side menu displayed

In this improvement proposal for Rappi I explain it in more detail.

Understanding our users.

Designers can take advantage of the mental models of users so that our products communicate their function through their form.

However, we can only do this successfully if we really understand the mental models of our users . It is a very common mistake to make design decisions based on our own mental models, which are often too complete and detailed compared to that of the users.

This, in fact, leads to problems in the interface, where the user does not find their reflected mental model and has to deal with the complex learning that this entails, leaving them confused and frustrated.

Creating consistency.

Since we all have mental models of interaction , it is a good rule of thumb to assume that whenever possible; users will form their mental models based on interactions with existing applications and websites.

In short, they expect the functionality to be consistent with these previous experiences and where there is a standard user interface pattern, we should emulate it in our designs to get a more intuitive experience .

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