Mental models: to reflect or not to reflect

Content team, , User research

Clare Reucroft and Nia Campbell talk about what mental models bring to content design, and why it's essential to understand how your users view the world.

As content designers, we cannot really work without user research. Otherwise, it’s like playing chess without the board. User research is an essential part of our practice.

We get to know our users by researching:

  • the words they use,
  • how they think and behave,
  • the steps they go through to complete their task.

All of these things provide layers to our research.

Mental models: why they're important

A mental model is an explanation of how a person thinks something works. Mental models are based on past experiences, and they shape how someone acts and behaves in future situations.

To better support users with our content, we need to understand their unconscious thoughts. This means looking beyond what users are saying and uncovering what they’re actually thinking.

For example, what comes to mind when you think of a restaurant?

We’ve said nothing else yet and it’s likely you’ve got a model in your mind already.

So having thought about it for a second, your model might include:

  • tables and chairs,
  • cutlery and plates,
  • menus,
  • waiters.

And that list is just the basics. All of that is based on your previous experience of dining in a restaurant and forms what you’ve come to expect from a restaurant.

Researching mental models

There are all sorts of ways to discover your users’ mental models.

Desk research is something you can do on your own, without directly involving users. You’ll start noticing themes by:

  • looking at social media to see what people say and how they behave,
  • doing keyword research to see the language and terms people use,
  • reading around the topic.

Here's an example of social media research in action. It shows how people from different locations think about bins and recycling.

3 screenshots of tweets where users are complaining about bins. Each tweet has a white speech bubble with comments. The tweets show 3 different mental models. The first tweet shows the resident assumes their bins will be picked up automatically, if they miss a collection. The second tweet shows how a new resident is confused by the colour coding of their bins and how this does not match with where they used to live. The last tweet shows the problematic design of bins for a colourblind resident. The only signifier for the different bins is colour.Field research is where you involve users directly in your work. Depending on your project, field research can include:

  • card sorting, where users show you how they group or categorise information,
  • diary studies to see users’ thoughts and feelings,
  • interviews to hear first hand about their experiences,
  • observational research, where you can watch and learn how users do a thing,
  • surveys to gather thoughts on specific topics,
  • usability testing, where users talk aloud as they complete a task.

You can then use what you learn about your users’ mental models to inform your content.

Reflect your user's mental model

A good example of reflecting a user’s mental model comes from a drive-through restaurant, such as McDonald’s.

The picture shows the outside of a McDonald's restaurant. Cars are queuing around the side of the restaurant, and on the road in the foreground, it reads "Drive thru only".Usually in this scenario, you:

  • approach the drive-through entrance in your car,
  • read a menu that’s near the entrance,
  • decide what you’d like to have,
  • drive on and speak into a microphone,
  • tell staff what you’d like to order,
  • drive on to a window where staff say how much your order costs,
  • pay for your order,
  • drive around the restaurant a bit more,
  • pick up your order at another window,
  • exit the drive-through.

This model is fairly simple to follow - essentially it’s ‘order and pay first, then eat’. And when you’ve done it once, it’s easy to anticipate what to do in similar future scenarios.

And it works! Because no matter the mode of your transportation, the model remains the same. Yes, these two people above might be on horseback, but they still know how to place their order. For them, it’s simply a ride-through instead.

Rebut the mental model and re-educate your user

There may be times where you need to rebut a user’s mental model; essentially oppose and re-educate them to help them find, do or get something.

Why Nando’s staff ask if you’ve visited before

If you’ve ever visited a Nando’s restaurant, you may have noticed that the first question the staff ask you is “Have you ever been to a Nando’s before?”

This is because Nando's plays with our mental model. It looks like a restaurant, but it operates differently.

Here is the typical set up of a Nando’s restaurant:

A picture of the inside of a Nando's restaurant. There are tables and chairs, and a bar. The restaurant lighting gives an ambient atmosphere.And although you’re seated at tables with table settings — which indicates the model, ‘eat first, pay after’ — you order at a counter and pay before you eat.

Nando's understands this confuses their diners' mental models. And that's why they start by asking — and explaining — how it works. They are rebutting your mental model and re-educating you.

Reflect, rebut, re-educate

A mental model is essential when you’re doing user research and designing content. It tells you how your user thinks something works. You can reflect a user’s mental model with your content. Or you can rebut and re-educate.

But how will you know which type of model to design for?

Do your research.

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