Mental Models and User Experience

May 17, 2016

Mental models derive from human perceptions. Kenneth Craik hypothesized about mental models in the mid-40s. His goal was a general clarification of human thought, taking into account the way people relate to the world through mental models. Basically, a mental model is a person’s intuitive understanding of how something functions based on his or her past encounters, exposure to information, and sound judgment.

What people perceive is completely subjective and depends on the way things appear to them. For example, imagine that someone tells a kid a frightening story about swimming. The child will hold that image in his mind for a long time and, thus, think of swimming as a perilous thing—until external forces contradict that idea and he learns to see things differently. Similarly, for some, investing in stocks is a risky affair. A person’s mental model that investing in the stock market is risky guides that person’s decision not to invest in stocks.

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Individuals draw bits of knowledge from their everyday experience with systems and services. They associate impressions about how things work and form their mental models. When user behaviors depend on people’s learnings about a specific sequence of activities or performing certain tasks, their mental model guides their understanding of how a framework functions.

Envision yourself buying an item through an online-shopping portal. What are you imagining? The picture you paint in your mind—or your established thought pattern—is your mental model. If your mental model matches the way a user interface actually functions, you might say that interface is intuitive. One might say, “The users get it before they’ve even seen the application.”

With regard to online experiences, users expect a specific sequence of events in light of both past encounters and their desire around what the experience should be. A classic case of such a pattern is the sign-up use case for a Web site, in which users must enter the required data, receive an activation link via email, then must click the link to activate their user account. Most users expect an online registration process along these lines and hold a mental model of what a sign-up procedure ought to be.

As stated by Kenneth Craik, some characteristics of mental models are that they are incomplete in nature and constantly evolve. While mental models are never a completely accurate representation of a thing, they provide simple representations of complex phenomena.

How People Form Mental Models

People form mental models through observation, immersive experience, and culture.


Observation is a crucial method of getting answers concerning people’s responses to their general surroundings. As individuals, we are well equipped to pick up detailed data about our environs through our senses.

Observation is a great way to learn things. When observing, the details we gather through our senses help us to identify similarities in our general surroundings. This further shapes our mental models. We begin seeing things in a way that upholds the rationale we’ve framed independently from anyone else.

Infants learn from others by observing how they do things and try to copy what they do. Youngsters watch their parents and others, then mirror their activities. As they grow, they learn that making a clamor can get them the attention they need. That early mental model becomes more sophisticated as they mature.

A series of things that we perceive shapes our mental models. If we keep observing an object over time, we may notice variations. Every time we attempt to make an inference, different outcomes might shift in importance. We can break down a mental model to build another one.

Consider a light switch: A mental model might be that when one flips a switch down, it turns on the light. But in the US, it works the opposite way. Figure 1 shows a couple of examples. When absorbing this data, our cerebrum would likely add this deviation into our overall conviction framework. As Don Norman has stated, users update their mental models based on stimuli from outside.

Figure 1—Light switches
Light switches

Immersive Experience

An immersive experience is one in which a user is totally caught up in a system. If the experience is a positive one, the user’s satisfaction may reach new heights. Immersive experiences stimulate our senses. For example, audiences sometimes cry while watching an intensely emotional scene in a movie or a TV show.

Having an immersive experience does not on its own let users form a mental model—though it may give them a higher level of fulfillment than those they’ve had before. However, when users compare and contrast that experience with a set of past experiences, they begin to visualize what an experience ought to be—to create a mental model. Once users have formed a mental model, they will often reject an experience that does not accord with that model.

Let’s again consider the movie experience. What makes watching films in a theater such an exciting proposition is a blend of sound, high-resolution imagery on a huge screen, the dimness of the room, a bin of popcorn, reclining seats—all of which create an ambiance that we do not feel anywhere else. At such moments, our physical self-awareness is altered, and we experience a world that exists only in our mind. Once the movie ends, we briefly feel disconnected from reality. The film evoked emotions, while our physical state remained unchanged. This impression lasts for some time.

In the past, when motion-picture theaters did not have Dolby surround-sound systems, people still appreciated the experience of watching films in theaters. But, now in 2016, we can’t imagine a theater’s not having a Dolby system. Our mental model of a theater experience has changed, so we have certain expectations.

It’s difficult to shape users’ mental model for an online experience because they’re constantly experiencing evolving patterns and norms. In an effort to offer users a more pleasurable experience, companies continually alter their Web experience by adding elements they hope will energize their audience. These changes drives users’ expectations to ever greater heights.


Culture plays a vital role in shaping human perceptions. Because people belonging to different cultures often have different mental models, the internationalization and localization of Web experiences that must address these cultural intricacies has always been challenging for designers. Creating a localized Web site presents design challenges that go far beyond translation.

Cross-cultural users face certain barriers in accessing information and are often confronted with problems with language barriers, social etiquette, keyboard usage, recognition of symbols and icons, currency and date formats, units of measure, and even legal requirements. For example, in the US, temperature is displayed in Fahrenheit; in India, in Centigrade. Dates follow a Month DD, YYYY format in the US. Plus, all public-facing Web sites must follow WCAG 2.0 guidelines.

Cross-cultural design aims to ensure products are easy to use and provide good user experiences across cultural boundaries. When designing a cross-cultural experience, it’s important to consider such key aspects of design as content organization, navigation design, color scheme, typography; and the design of visual information such as images, logos, photographs, and animations.

How Understanding Mental Models Influences User-Interface Design

Don Norman discusses mental models in his article “Some Observations on Mental Models,” in which he also considers conceptual models and theoretical models. Norman says, “Conceptual models are devised as tools for the understanding or teaching of physical systems. Mental models are what people really have in their heads and what guides their use of things.” The designer introduces a reasonable conceptual model into a design framework with the goal of making a design solution comprehensible to the user. On the off chance that the designer gets that model right, the user’s mental model will conform to the expected point of view.

A successful user experience is about more than user-interface design. Designing an interface that is loaded with features may deliver a positive experience, but a user who is accessing the site from a remote area where connectivity is weak may find dealing with the poor performance that results from these intricacies frustrating.

In reality, a user interface can never correspond to every user’s mental model. The number of conceivable models could range into the thousands. However, you can create user interfaces that match the mental models users would most likely have.

To design an easy-to-comprehend user experience, your focus should be on users and their needs, propensities, desires, typical encounters, and inclinations. Through learning about users, designers can better understand how they do things and create a user interface that fits their needs, inclinations, and mental models.

Beyond Successful Task Completion

Today, just enabling users to complete their tasks is not enough. It’s important that users enjoy an experience.

When users interact with a Web site, they do not simply need to achieve a goal. They draw on their own prior experiences—as well as those of their friends, family, and colleagues—to connect with that site’s framework. Because people enjoy the company of others in their lives, any Web experience that gives users a feeling of community turns them into returning users. Today, Web experiences attract crowds, not just the mere utility of a service. To serve this emergent mental model, designers need to advance their proficiency continuously and continually enhance their product user experiences.

One approach to offering users an engaging experience is through designing microinteractions that delight users. Focusing on microinteractions, which exist at the atomic level of design, lets us design delightful visual feedback and smooth transitions, auto-correct mistakes as users type, and come up with innovative design pattern like pull to refresh. It is really a matter of creating a user illusion from many tiny, nuanced, interesting moments.

Leveraging Mental Models in Creating Good User Experiences

There are a number of popular user-centered design approaches that help us to leverage users’ mental models in creating user experiences that truly address their needs.

User Personas

Alan Cooper, a noted pioneer in software development, innovated the concept of a persona. After interviewing seven or eight users, he created a prototype for a persona that was based on the data he’d gathered. This approach helped him to relate to people’s different mindsets and empathize with the attitudes of potential users of the product he was designing. Creating user personas is great way of representing our target users. Personas help us to understand users’ context, behaviors, attitudes, needs, challenges, painpoints, goals, and motivations.

Empathic Design

Whitney Quesenbery defines empathy as the ability to understand and identify with another person’s context, emotions, goals, and motivations.” If a UX designer were to design a braille watch, he might need to act as though he were a blind user to understand and feel the challenges of a visually impaired user. Long-term immersion in playing the role of a target user can offer meaningful insights that we can use in understanding user behaviors in analogous contexts. By putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we can appreciate contextual cues from the environment that let us build an analogy for how things relate to each other. This, in turn, can help us to create a good user experience.

Contextual Inquiry

When we need to study users in their own natural environment, contextual inquiry is an effective research technique for obtaining information about the context of use. It is a method of observing users in a specific situation that helps us to understand their painpoints and ability to make judgments. Through this sort of research, we can gain useful perspectives that let us get a comprehensive and realistic view of users’ natural behaviors.


Once, when I was traveling in the US, I knew my stop was drawing near. The pattern of behavior I’d grown up with was to holler “Stop, please” at the conductor. However, in this new context, the time had come to break my old mental model and form a new one. By watching my fellow travelers, I realized they were squeezing closer to the exit as we neared their stop and they prepared to exit.

Understanding mental models lets us shape positive, engaging user experiences within the framework of the user’s mental model. As designers, we know that the user’s mental model will often differ from our own. Whatever gap exists between our mental model and that of the user results in slower performance, blunders, user disappointment, and even disengagement. To avoid these negative experience outcomes, we must understand the mental models of the users for whom we’re designing a product or service. 

Manager, User Experience, at Cerner Corporation

Bangalore, Karnataka, India

Alipta BallavAlipta has been part of the Web IT industry for over 17 years. A seasoned and accomplished UX consultant with rich experience across various domains, he has deep experience in defining and executing digital strategies for B2B and B2C customers. Blending technology and design, he has helped more than 30 global customers in their digital-transformation journeys—focusing on solving everything from core user experience problems to building responsive prototypes. At present, Alipta is focusing on independent research in the areas of Web accessibility and multimodal interactions, building predictive UX models, and mobile user-interface design patterns. Working with the Stanford Crowd Research collective as a UX researcher, he contributed to an initiative to build a sustainable crowdsourcing platform. Alipta completed his Bachelor’s in Visual Arts at the Indian College of Arts & Draftsmanship in Kolkata. He is also a management graduate from IISWBM, in Kolkata.  Read More

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