Mental Model: Think the way the user thinks.

Mental model

Do you know about the fire phone launched by Amazon? 

Launched in September 2014, the Fire phone is one of the failed products of Amazon. A competitor of iPhone and Samsung failed to attract customers because it lacked pleasing design. 

The users were more accustomed to iPhones and Samsung that the look and feel of Fire phone failed to make the mark. There are many examples of recalled products or ceased sales for not matching up to users’ expectations.

One more classic example, the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, recalling over 1000000 cars, because of the infamous launch of “Rocker Switch Gearshift” in 2016. The switchgear’s new design didn’t match the mental model of users. Users were getting out of their cars, thinking the shifter was in park, just to have the car drive off without them. This confusion leads to 100 crashes and 40 injuries. 

It hurts when the designer designs for users, but the uses won’t get it right. So it’s impossible to change the convention overnight and expect everything will be alright. Because people have these sets of experiences built up, and they take these experiences into the new thing that you’re making. They expect it will work on previous expectations and experience. This is the mental model of the user for a product.

A mental model, by definition, is an internal representation of external reality based on the user’s learning experience. So this is a cognitive shorthand or a fancy way of saying that people always compare their mental models with the real world. We expect the world to run in a certain way consciously, so if the user uses a product, it is expected to work in a certain way, and if it doesn’t, the user struggles.

There are two things to the differential in the mental model,

  1. System model 
  2. Interaction model 

The system model identifies how a particular system works, and the interaction model recognizes how to use something but lacks knowledge of how it works. For example, the user understands how to use the car, but does not know about its working. If the built products have strong system models, they understand how it works, but cannot identify how the user would use the product, thus these products are weak interaction models. 

Mental Model: Think the way the user thinks.

Like knowing how the engine works but failing to identify how the engine interacts with the users. Thus, a designer engineer fits in where he is knowledgeable enough about how an average person prefers comfortable with the engine and interacts with the product. The designer interacts with the model, and they’re sort of like a translator with knowing coding and users’ mental expectations. 

When a user lands on a site, they have certain expectations for where elements like the location of a search function, what steps they might need to follow to accomplish their goal, or what would happen if they clicked on something. This model isn’t based on facts but constructed primarily on the person’s experiences and what they “think” they know about the system. These beliefs affect our design because an individual mental model guides their actions. So when the system doesn’t work the way people expect, they get confused.

We observe a familiar discrepancy in usability testing revolving around people’s mental model about the browser’s back button. People believe the back button will always take them just one step back, to the previous state of the system. That’s their mental model. Sometimes, people hit the browser back button to get back to the page after a modal window has opened. But because the modal window wasn’t a new URL, they end up being taken back off that page entirely, to them, it seems like two steps back, or the page opens in a new tab, which went unnoticeable, and suddenly the back button isn’t available. A mismatch in the user’s mental model and the system occurs, it makes it the people difficult to recover from the situation. And even when people can understand what happens, it often makes them feel bad for making that mistake, or it might seem like your site is broken, and it lowers site perceived value.

In case your product is new, you educate the people about its usage. For example, a just-launched iPhone created ads to show their users how to use the photos or address book into their cell phone. Such kind of education is done until the user can achieve the map of the real-world expectations of their products, mental model changes over the period. Users expect the same product to work differently as per their metal model at that moment. For example, the address books now look similar to Facebook contacts, rather than the old notebook-style address books. 

How to identify the mental model of a user?

Respecting users’ mental models is the foundation of designing usable, user-centered systems. It is necessary to conduct research and find out users’ mental models to make sure the system matches users’ expectations.

  1. Conduct research: Learn and observe your users, what are their expectations / prior knowledge/experience, and how your product should work or stand to their expectations. 
  2. Identify metaphors: Identify the familiar real-world concepts, that help the users set their expectations, for example, the desktop as a metaphor to the folders.
  3. Pay attention to the user’s terminology, so you map your product functions to these terminologies. 
  4. Identify the objects, concepts related to a task/ activity example the photography will have the works, photo, camera, album. 


There can be different user groups with distinct mental models. For a successful design, the conceptual design model must match the user’s mental model, reflecting the real world. 

As a designer, our focus is on the model to improve the overall UX learnability efficiency, memorability, and user satisfaction of your product. Since the designer speaks to his users via his product, it’s important to respect the mental model of the users and design the products accordingly.

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