Wait.. What? How are mental models, ducks and UX research related?

Imagine you’ve grown up seeing ducks quacking, swimming in ponds, and waddling around. Over time, you’ve built a mental model of what a duck is and how it behaves. Then, one day, you encounter a duck that starts crowing like a rooster and strutting around like a chicken. It completely contradicts your expectations based on your previous experiences with ducks.

Similarly, in UX design, users develop expectations based on their past experiences with websites and apps. If they encounter a design that doesn’t align with these expectations, it’s like the duck behaving unexpectedly. It confuses users because it doesn’t match what they’ve come to anticipate, leading to frustration and a breakdown in their interaction with the product. The experience does not conform to a user’s mental model.

How mental models in UX help to design

A little history lesson: where did mental models come from?

Numerous articles delve into defining mental models within a UX framework, but it’s crucial to recognize their origin in cognitive psychology. Rooted in various psychological theories like schema theory and constructivism, mental models are frameworks individuals use to interpret information efficiently, crafted through experience and learning.
Kenneth Craik’s pioneering work on the “mental model” theory, presented in his 1943 book “The Nature of Explanation,” laid the groundwork for subsequent advancements in cognitive science. Despite initial lack of widespread acknowledgment, Craik’s ideas significantly influenced later studies in cognitive science, particularly in mental representation, perception, and problem-solving.
Craik’s contributions have particularly resonated in fields such as human-computer interaction (HCI) and UX design, emphasizing the importance of comprehending how humans perceive and understand information. This comprehension is vital for crafting websites, apps, and systems that align with user expectations and make sense to them.

The changed narrative for mental models

A decade ago, usability testing primarily focused on identifying interaction issues like unclickable buttons or difficulty in finding features within live apps, websites, or prototypes. Concepts like Norman Nielsen’s Door emphasized the importance of affordance in guiding user interaction. Today, many UX design patterns stem from best practices and heuristic principles advocated by organisations such as the Baymard Institute and the Nielsen Norman Group.

Conventional user experiences prevalent in today’s apps and websites often mirror established norms. For instance, the checkout flow in major e-commerce stores follows a nearly identical structure, fostering user familiarity. Any deviation from these expected experiences can disrupt users’ mental models, affecting their comprehension and engagement.

Today in UX design, the focus extends beyond seamless navigation to encompass alignment with users’ realities and contextual understanding based on past experiences. This shift emphasises the importance of considering users’ mental models in crafting effective user experiences.

Mental model case studies

In our research, particularly within the healthcare and financial sectors, we’ve noticed a trend where people expect online experiences to mirror their real-life encounters. These expectations are rooted in mental models, which are neural pathways individuals rely on to understand concepts. For instance, when considering bundled insurance products like car, home, and phone insurance, users naturally form mental models based on their experiences, research, or advice from brokers.

Traditionally, home contents insurance covers a wide range of items within a home. However, with the increasing customization options available today, users can opt to insure individual items, deviating from the traditional mental model of bundled coverage. While this personalized approach may suit certain user groups, it challenges the conventional understanding of home contents insurance, illustrating how breaking a mental model can lead to innovation.

Similarly, the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of telemedicine, altering how individuals interact with healthcare services. Users engaging in virtual consultations often express concerns about the lack of physical examination compared to in-person visits. This discrepancy challenges the established mental model of healthcare services and requires behavioural changes to help users adapt to the idea that certain ailments can be effectively diagnosed and treated through online consultations. 

When is using mental models helpful?

Understanding when to utilise existing mental models and when to challenge them is crucial in product development. While recognising and aligning with prevalent mental models within an industry is essential, there are instances, especially in specialised products with advanced users, where adhering too closely to existing models can stifle innovation. Striking a balance between respecting industry conventions and designing experiences that resonate with users’ mental models is where the magic lies.

So, how do you know when you’ve struck the right chord with the mental model? Customer research plays a pivotal role in this process. By delving into how individuals perceive the world, user research provides insights necessary to craft products that are not only intuitive but also meet users’ expectations effectively. Next time you look at your duck app and wonder if it’s acting the way people expect it to, or it’s actually crowing like a rooster, get out of the building and usability test it!