What is a Mental Model?

What is a Mental Model?


When a user lands on a site, they have certain
expectations for where elements like the search function might be located, what steps they
might need to follow to accomplish their goal, or what would happen if they clicked on something. We refer to these expectations as their mental
model. A mental model is what the user believes about
a system, such as your website. This model isn’t based on facts, but is instead
constructed primarily on the person’s past experiences and what they *think* they know
about the system. These beliefs affect the way we need to design
because people base their actions according to their mental model. So when the system doesn’t work the way people
expect, they get confused. For example, a really common mismatch I’ve
seen in usability testing revolves around people’s mental model for the browser back
button. People believe that the back button will always
take them just one step back, to the previous state of the system. That’s their mental model. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work as
they expect. 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; which, to them, seems like
two steps back. Or maybe a page was opened in a new tab, which
they didn’t notice, and suddenly the back button isn’t available at all. So when a mismatch in the user’s mental model
and the system occurs, it can be really difficult for people to recover or to understand what
to do. 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 that lowers their perceived value of the
site. Respecting people’s mental model is really the
foundation of designing usable, user-centered systems. It’s important to conduct research and find
out what our users’ mental models are to make sure we design the system to match those expectations.

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