Mental Models

Your constantly-updated definition of Mental Models and collection of videos and articles

What are Mental Models?

Mental models are representations of the world that help us understand complex concepts and make better decisions.

They provide a framework for thinking and problem-solving, allow us to view problems from different angles and generate creative solutions, and help us become more effective thinkers and problem solvers. 

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We create mental models based on past experiences, beliefs, and assumptions to understand how the world works. Mental models can be conscious or unconscious, varying in accuracy and usefulness depending on the context. 

Mental models are essential for decision-making, problem-solving, and learning, as well as effective communication and collaboration in group settings. However, mental models can also lead to bias and errors if they are incomplete, inaccurate, inflexible, or resistant to change.

Mental Models in UX Design

“Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know."

— Jakob’s Law (Jakob Nielsen)

Mental models are important in creating user-friendly interfaces. Designers research users' mental models to create designs that align with their expectations and beliefs. Research takes various forms, such as ethnographic research through surveys or observation. If interfaces match users’ expectations, they do not have to learn new concepts or behaviors. For example, a shopping cart icon is a standard mental model for e-commerce websites. Skeuomorphic design elements, like virtual buttons that resemble real-world buttons, also help users. 

Mental models help people understand the world—they simplify complex concepts. Every individual forms their own mental model, and different people might form different models for the same interface. This is why we cannot rely on any one mental model to solve problems. Designers know this and have developed principles and methodologies like Jakob's Law and design thinking to understand their users' mental models better.

Jakob's Law emphasizes consistency in user experience design. Users may need support with unfamiliar design patterns, leading them to abandon tasks. Designs that align with users' mental models can address this issue. For example, if the designer places the navigation menu in an unexpected location, users may struggle to find it.

Design thinking is a problem-solving approach that aims to understand users' needs and preferences by involving them in every stage of the design process. Designers using this method often conduct user research, create personas, and then conduct user testing to identify potential problems with their designs.

How to Communicate Mental Models

As mental models are abstract, we can use different formats to communicate them. Each form has its unique advantages and applications: 

  • Conceptual Models: Conceptual models are used in HCI and interaction design as a way for designers to communicate how they interpret users' mental models to stakeholders, team members, and developers. Some examples of conceptual models are diagrams, flowcharts, or narratives. They are often used in science, engineering, and design to develop and test hypotheses, communicate complex ideas, and guide decision-making.

    For example, a conceptual model of a forest could include wildlife, insects, trees, etc., their roles, how they interact and the different life stages they go through. This model can predict the effects of, say, introducing a new species or climate change.

  • Visual Models: Visual models describe data, concepts, or processes, such as diagrams, charts, graphs, maps, infographics, and animations. Visual models are often used in science, engineering, education, and business to simplify and make information more accessible. Compared to conceptual models, visual models provide more detailed and specific information.

A user flow is a visual representation of a user's path to accomplish a task on a website or app. It shows the steps involved in the process, including any user's decision points or actions.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Applications of Mental Models in Everyday Life

We can use mental models in everyday life to understand our environment better and make more informed decisions. 

  • Problem-solving: An example of problem-solving through mental models is the 5 Whys. The 5 Whys can help you understand how a user thinks and diagnose the cause of a problem with a series of "why" questions.

  • Decision-making: Mental models help us analyze the potential consequences of different decisions and identify which is most likely to lead to a desirable outcome. An example is the "cost-benefit analysis," which evaluates the costs and benefits of different options regarding financial, social, or environmental impacts.

  • Critical thinking: Methods like the scientific or Socratic methods help you question your assumptions and challenge commonly held beliefs.

The Five Whys method is a problem-solving technique that involves asking "Why?" five times to uncover the root cause of an issue. It helps to understand the underlying mental models that inform decision-making process

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Learn More about Mental Models

Learn how to use Mental Models in Mobile UX.

Read more about the importance of mental models in decision-making and critical thinking, using Charlie Munger's approach as an example.

Discover how to create user-friendly designs that align with users' mental models by applying Jakob's Law

Don’t miss this excellent masterclass to learn How To Design For The Way Your Users Think.

Learn about mental models and their role in user experience design in this informative article.

Read more about transforming Mental Models into Conceptual Models for Mobile UX.

Literature on Mental Models

Here’s the entire UX literature on Mental Models by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Mental Models

Take a deep dive into Mental Models with our course Mobile UX Strategy: How to Build Successful Products .

All open-source articles on Mental Models

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