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Mental models in UX

A guide on how to use mental models in UX Design.

Alex Dovhyi
Alex Dovhyi
2 min read
Mental models in UX

What users feel they know about an interface has a significant impact on how they interact with it. Misaligned mental models are widespread, especially in experimental designs.

Mental models are one of the most important concepts in human-computer interaction. However, a lot of designers still don't know how to use them to benefit the users and the business.

If you're not familiar with what a mental model is, let's cover the basics.

What are mental models?

A mental model is a set of beliefs of an individual or a group of people about how the system works. They are the prior knowledge, patterns, and behaviors we expect when facing an interaction or experience that’s similar to one from our past.

Why UX designers should care?

As a UX designer, you should figure out which existing mental models your users will refer to when using your product.

If you don’t stick to them, there will be a mismatch between the user’s idea of how product works and the way it actually works.

What's in the user's mental models?

A lot of UX designers assume that their mental models are the same as those of their users. But people’s mental models are very subjective.

However, when it comes to user experiences, the majority will form similar mental models.

How to determine user's mental models?

To understand how users think about your UX use card sorting, interviews, or surveys early in your research.

Later in the design process, use wireframes and prototypes to test the designs you've created with the users.

Mental model mismatch

Confused mental models happen when users fail to recognize key differences between similar parts of a system.

Mixed-up mental models can also affect the discoverability of information within a product or application.

How to fix a mismatch?

If the system can be changed, the solution is simple: make sure it conforms to the user's mental models.

E.g., If users repeatedly overlook a button because of its placement, move the button to the place they look for it.

Recap:

  • In UX, a mental model is user belief of how it works
  • They are based on user's past knowledge and interactions
  • User research helps to determine user's existing mental models
  • If a mismatch exists, change the system to fit users’ mental models

Those were mental models in UX design.