A mental model represents a user’s perceived reality. It’s all about what a user thinks about a system based on what they think they already know about and their past experiences.

What’s important about mental models is that they’re unique for every user. You reach from that person’s experiences and beliefs.

Mental models are used in many industries today, such as psychology, business, and technology. They help to describe how a user defines the steps needed around a specific task.

A mental model basically represents an individual’s thought process for how something works. It’s what a user knows (or thinks they know) about something, such as your website.

A mental model is not based on facts! They’re also never necessarily complete, as whenever a person changes, the mental model can change as well.

In this post, we’re going to take a look at mental models in UX design specifically, including looking at some mental models UX examples and how to use these models effectively.

What are mental models in UX design?

Now that you know what a mental model is, let’s take a look at mental models in regard to UX design.

UX designers use mental models to help develop experiences and designs that make sense to the users. You can utilise the mental model to either stick with the workflow the person has used or to figure out a way of helping them learn a new design.

You need to remember that the UX designer’s mental model is going to be very different when compared with the user’s mental model. Every user has a different mental model.

It’s also worth pointing out that users spend most of their time on websites other than yours. Therefore, a large part of a user’s mental model of your website will be influenced by data gleaned from other websites.

Why are mental models important in UX?

Now that you have a good understanding of what mental models are, we now need to look at the importance of mental models. So, what is the impact of mental models?

A mental model helps UX designers to empathise with how their audience expects things to work. It will provide you with useful hints and tips so that you can build an interface (UI) and experience (UX) that is predictable and intuitive, meaning users don’t need to think twice when using your website.

Mental model vs conceptual model

A lot of people confuse mental models with conceptual models, but they’re not the same. Designers create conceptual models by thinking about a website in a structured, organised, and rational way.

In basic terms, a conceptual model is a blueprint for how you intend your website to work. A mental model is about how we think something will work.

How to use mental models in UX design

When creating mental models for your UX design, the UX design agency you hire will deploy a number of best practices to ensure accurate results. Examples include the following:

Card sorting exercises

A card sorting exercise can be incredibly helpful in figuring out how users categorise the information that appears on your website.

UX researchers and designers can utilise open card sorting where participants are provided with a deck of cards. You can then ask them to put the cards in groups in a meaningful manner.

The results can be used to verify a pre-defined information architecture.

Researchers and designers can ask questions about the groupings so they can get a good understanding of how participants think.

Jakob’s Law

Per Jakob’s Law, users expect your website to work in the same way as other websites they’ve already visited. Because of this, designers should use patterns that people are already accustomed to.

Natural user interface (NUI)

NUI is basically an invisible user interface that stays unseen as the user continues to learn interactions that are increasingly complex. This gives the user a sense of accomplishment.

The NUI should fit the user’s context so that the design comes naturally to them. A good example of this is when a person swipes between home screen pages on a device that runs Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android operating systems.

Because these screens mimic flipping pages in a paper book, swiping feels natural.

If you are designing for a NUI, here are a few things you must pay attention to:

  • Limit the cognitive load
  • Create direct interaction through the direct correlation between natural user interface reaction and user action
  • Use progressive disclosure to lay out a clear learning path to users, which enables them to begin with basic skills and, in small increments, move onto something more advanced
  • Convey instant expertise to take advantage of the skills the user already has

Mental model examples

To help you get a better understanding, we’ll end by taking a look at some mental models UX examples.

Pareto Principle

Also referred to as the 80/20 rule, this means that most results aren’t equally distributed. For example, 20% of your time produces 80% of your results.

Inversion Mental Model

This is one of the most powerful types of mental models. Instead of thinking about the outcome you desire, think about the outcome you want to avoid.

Confirmation Bias

As humans, we have a tendency to search for and interpret information in a manner that confirms or reinforces what we believe already. To protect yourself against this confirmation bias, accept the idea that your perception is not always going to be equal to reality. You can do this by challenging yourself to find different interpretations of what’s going on.

Bayer’s Theorem

Finally, Bayer’s Theorem describes how likely something is to happen based on potentially relevant factors. These factors include evidence from current conditions and past results that could impact a new outcome.

Final words on mental models in UX design

So there you have it: everything you need to know about mental models in UX design. Mental models are vital because they give you a better understanding of what your customers expect to see when they’re using your website. This helps you to create a website that works seamlessly for the user. They can navigate through your site without needing to think about what to do next.



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