The U before the X : Mental Models.

At the core of UX design sits the User. This is the first article of a series called “The U before the X” where I am going to focus on understanding the User before creating the Experience.



        You know sometimes how some old funny events pop up in your head in the most inappropriate times. Here I am, desperately trying to focus in the middle of an Adobe XD presentation, then I crack a laugh. Out of the blue, in my mind, my dear friend pulls the door of the store instead of pushing it. She’s pretty sure she is doing the right thing. She insists on it until the guy from the other side of the transparent door comes to rescue. I sure, a good friend that I am, made more than a fair amount of jokes about it and reminded her of it whenever I had the chance to.

        This situation, that I thought was buried deep down an old memory drawer, just popped up in my head in the middle of a User Experience intervention and, as a designer, I couldn’t help but wonder: Did she really deserve all those jokes?

It’s the Designer’s fault!

        As simple users that we are, probably multitasking throughout our day, thinking about a million things at a time and subject to all kinds of cognitive biases, we sometimes pull a door instead of pushing it, we open the tea bag the wrong way and we have no idea how to replay a song on that new touch device. When these kind of things happen, as users we often take the blame by default. And this blame often comes with a feeling of embarrassment, especially if we’re in a new city and can’t figure out how to validate the subway ticket at the entrance (very crowded place with people waiting on you! Yes, I am talking out of experience).

So in the user’s head it’s simple: I made the mistake, I assume blame. 

        There is this leitmotiv theme that runs throughout Don Norman’s book The Design of Everyday Things, it argues who to blame when one misuses an everyday object. Since what people perceive is completely subjective and depends on the way things appear to them, is it always their fault if they use an object the wrong way? My friend obviously couldn’t make the difference between the two identical handles from both sides of the door. None of them indicated a usability pattern on whether to pull or push!

“We design systems for the way people are, not the way we want them to be”. – Don Norman


        What I have learned from Don Norman is that it’s often not the user’s fault. If users makes a mistake they are only following their personal mental model of how they perceive objects. With that said, it is only natural that sometimes the mental model happen to stray far away from what the designer intended for the object to be. This can also mean that the designer is the one who produced a system that is too complicated to get along with, which almost inevitably led the user to error.

        Matter of fact, there are designers that focus too much on the aesthetics of a product at the expense of usability. That’s where a designer can make a big mistake: excluding the user from the big picture. It’s like forgetting your child at the airport!

        A good design for that door would be putting different kinds of handlers on each side: one small to indicate a pull, the other bigger and horizontal to indicate a push. And naturally, both bars will indicate the act of grasping.

The Mental Model or why a useless object is confusing to look at

        Katerina Kamprani, an Athens-based architect and 3D modeller, has created a series of everyday objects called “The Uncomfortable” where instead of designing problem-solving products, she did exactly the opposite. (To know more : The Uncomfortable Everyday Objects). Similarly Jacques Carelman’s famous Catalogue des Objets Introuvables gathers delightful examples of everyday things that are deliberately designed to be of no use if not harmful.

Catalogue-dobjets-introuvables-Carelman-couv-index-grafik (2).png
Source: Catalogue des Objets Introuvables, Jacque Carelman.

        This uncomfortable design is a discursive and experimental approach to address the psychological discomfort behind useless objects. Considering these two tandems for example, the user almost instantly knows it won’t work: they mentally form a Conceptual Model of the object and based on already embedded models, simulate its operation. But the results don’t match the expectations they have already shaped for a tandem, the objects therefore are labeled unworkable which confuses the brain since their existence is unjustifiable.  

        Now to get a better understanding of how Models work let’s take a look at the following diagram (adapted and modified from the book The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman).


        The diagram above shows the designer-user communication process. First of all, the designer comes up with his own design process which is how he intends for the product to work. It defines the product: its purpose and how it works. The only way to communicate this model to the end user is through the System Image, which is how the final product is presented to the world.

        The user then interacts with the System Image and starts forming a mental conceptual model of what this object is and how it works (sometimes called the User’s Path), we’ll call it in our case the Mental Model.

The Mental Model is how people visualize themselves, others, the environment and anything they interact with, it’s how they understand the world and take action. The Mental model is based on incomplete facts, past experiences, and even intuitive perceptions.

        When the users first paint an image in their head, it actually follows an already-established pattern. The users expect from a new system specific reactions that their cerebrum will analyse mainly through one filter: The past. The past represents all encounters they’ve had with other similar devices and everyday things which shaped, with time, how they interact with their environment.

        Since their early age, humans rely on observation to learn. Infants learn from others by observing what they do and try to mirror others behaviors. As we go through our day we gather an immense amount of details through our senses, we identify the repetitive patterns and store them for future use. Identifying similarities is an unconscious task that we do naturally, it decreases the cognitive load for when we have to face the same situation again. This is why switching on the light or brushing our teeth doesn’t come with a thinking process (or at least not a heavy one as if we were doing it for the first time). This is also why when my friend pulled that store door, she was only replicating the action she makes to open her own bedroom door on a daily basis.

        So to no surprise, when users get to interact with a system, they already have some hard-wired usability expectations. When they compare the new experience with a set of old experiences they start visualizing what the interaction ought to be. Once that mental model formed, often times the users will reject any experience that mismatches that model. Therefore, it is of most importance for the designers to make the interface communicate the product’s purpose clearly enough for users to form accurate and useful mental images.

So why do I care about all this ?

        Because for the UX designer the challenge is REAL: Everything we do is, eventually, about either the match or mismatch between the users’ mental models and the designer’s conceptual model.

        Taking into consideration the fact that users’ experiences and therefore mental models are always adapting to constantly evolving technologies, designers need to create a clear System Image that makes it easy for the user to effortlessly understand the design’s purpose. Ideally, the user’s mental model would MATCH the designer’s model.

        Joakob’s Law of Internet UX states that users spend most of their time on other websites rather than on yours. So when people get their cumulative experience from other websites, that adds up to their understanding of how a website should work and what are the design conventions on the internet. When your interface has the same design patterns as other existing interfaces, the users can focus more on your products, services and whatever you are offering on your interface without being bothered by trying to figure out how your system works.

Fallout Shelter or how you can switch the rules

        The fallout series is a post-apocalyptic fiction video game. The story takes place in the 23rd century, in an alternate reality where the culture of the 50s is still alive. Long story short: Nations began to run out of oil, the world went into a global conflict that ended in 2077 in a nuclear war. Fallout shelters (Vaults), that were initially built for secret unethical experiments, are now used to repopulate the US. 

Like any other apocalyptic fiction, Fallout series is filled with philosophical and psychological analysis. The one that I am interested in here however is what I will call  the Vault Mental Model. Instead of meeting the users mental model, the Vault-tec corporation made the latter match its design instead. The Vault-tec advertises the underground shelter life as a fun experience and that destruction is OKAY!


The vault propaganda posters that display a creepily optimistic and joyful mood around what can be considered as the most insane catastrophe humanity can face (besides having a maple syrup shortage) only remind us of how manipulable the human perception can be. With that said, if posters can convince people that being locked in an underground bunker for an undetermined amount of time (*cough* for life!) is a pleasant, near-luxurious experience where you can meet new friends and raise a family, then you can definitely make your user embrace the new button shape on your website.

        I must admit that the challenge is big and comes with a risk. But in case you know that the mental model of one or more user groups will not fit the conceptual model, you need to change the user’s mental model so that it matches the conceptual one you have designed. 



        To sum up, the first steps you need to take in a design process and while defining the product:

  • Understanding your users’ Mental Models (Individual In-depth Interviews, Competitive Research, User Research, Personas, User Journey, etc.)
  • Designing a Conceptual Model to match the users’ Mental Models (Sketch & Test, Validation Testing, Iteration, User Feedback, Focus Groups, Beta Testing, Metrics Analysis, etc.)
  • Making the users’ Mental Model match your own Conceptual Model (Tutorials, Guides, Step by Step Introductions, etc.)

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