What are mental models?

Torresburriel Estudio
4 min readJun 26, 2024

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Mental models can be defined as the representation a person has in their mind of how something works in the real world. This representation influences how they expect things to function and how they interact with interfaces and systems.

Photo by Angèle Kamp on Unsplash.

In this article, we will explore how mental models affect user experience and how designers can apply this knowledge to improve their products.

The concept of mental models

Mental models are essentially what users believe about a system or service, whether it’s a website, a mobile application, or software. These beliefs are formed through experience, education, and interaction with similar products.

For example, if someone frequently uses social media applications, they will develop a mental model of how these applications typically work: how to make a post, how to search for friends, how to scroll to see more posts, or how to set privacy settings.

Another example is the search function on a website. Users generally expect to find a search bar at the top of the page, often in the center or the top right corner. This expectation is based on their previous experiences with popular websites like Google or Amazon. If a designer places the search bar in a less conventional position, such as in the footer, this could confuse the user and lead to a negative experience, as it contradicts the established mental model.

This preexisting understanding helps users navigate new systems but can also lead to confusion if the new system deviates significantly from established norms without proper guidance.

Methods to identify mental models

Accurately identifying users’ mental models is crucial for UX design. Here are some UX research techniques we can use to discover how users perceive and expect systems to work:

  • User interviews: these are a direct tool for exploring users’ mental models. Through open-ended questions, we can gain insights into how users believe a system should work and what they expect from it. These interviews can be structured with specific questions or more open to allow users to express ideas and opinions that might not arise in a more rigid format. A useful approach is to ask users to describe their ideal workflow or how they would imagine an ideal function without the limitations of the current design.
  • Usability testing: this is essential for observing how users interact with a system in real-time. By watching users navigate an interface, we can identify where they encounter confusion or problems, which often indicates a discrepancy between the user’s mental model and the system design. Additionally, it is very useful for these sessions to be monitored, preferably recorded, to analyze users’ reactions and behaviors in various situations and tasks.
  • Task analysis: this involves breaking down the tasks users need to perform in the system into smaller, manageable components. This method helps understand how users approach tasks and what mental processes they employ to complete them. By breaking down each task, we can identify areas where users might have specific expectations or needs that the current system does not meet.
  • Experience maps: these visualize the entire journey of a user interacting with a system, from initial contact to regular use. This helps identify friction points or moments of disorientation that may indicate problems with current mental models. Other UX mapping techniques, such as empathy maps, can also be useful.
  • Card sorting: this is an interactive method where users are asked to organize information into categories that make sense to them. This can reveal how users structure information in their minds, which is especially useful for designing the information architecture of a website or application.

These methods help reveal assumptions and expectations that users bring to the product, facilitating their integration into the design.

Applying mental models correctly can transform the user experience. For example, when designing a mobile application for booking medical appointments, if users are accustomed to a specific process in similar applications, replicating this workflow can reduce confusion and increase adoption.

However, when it is necessary to deviate from established mental models, it is crucial to educate and guide users through tutorials or onboarding, visual aids, or intuitive design that eases the transition to new mental models.

Ultimately, UX designers have the task of aligning our designs with users’ mental models, ensuring that interactions are coherent and intuitive.

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Torresburriel Estudio

User Experience & User Research agency focused on services and digital products. Proud member of @UXalliance