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The psychology in UX Design -Mental Models
Sihle Dube

The psychology in UX Design -Mental Models


Illustration from Freepik


My first discovery of mental models was when I did a short course in Cognitive Psychology. Upon completing my studies, I realised how useful it is to familiarise myself with this concept and learn how to make interactions better without removing or changing the user’s expectations.


What are Mental Models?

The mental model concept has been used extensively in psychology reasoning, artificial intelligence, linguistics, sociology, learning science, and Human-Computer Interaction.


“The mind constructs small scale models of reality that it uses to anticipate events.”- Kenneth Craik, psychologist

When a user lands on a site or an app, they have certain expectations of how it works. These expectations involve where the menu is, where the search button is placed and the kind of journey they can take to manoeuvre the site or accomplish their intended goals.



These kinds of expectations that the user has are called mental models. It is the expectation the user forms about how a system or an experience should work. These mental models are usually formed around the user’s experience of using similar systems and how things are most likely to work.


So, what are these expectations?

An easy example is the back button on the browser.



So, imagine you are browsing on a website and a modal pops up. Your immediate reaction is pressing the back button on the browser so that you can go back before the popup modal.


According to people’s mental model, they think the browser’s back button will take them to their previous step, but it ends up taking them off that page entirely. Making them start all over again instead of just going one step back on that URL.


Let's take a look at a functional mental model


YouTube · Mercedes-Benz of Fort Mitchel


The Mercedes-Benz car seat settings are a great example of an interaction that uses mental models to operate the car seat controls.


The seating map controls make it easier to know which part of the seat you are adjusting. This is a great way to incorporate patterns in a design. These patterns make sense to users that are used to the system as well as new users who are not used to the system yet.


Mental models in the real world

As we can see from the examples above, mental models are constructed through different elements such as affordances, constraints, mapping, instructions, cultural standards and interactions.


The cumulative effect of the mental model saved ensures a lower cognitive load. It’s always easy to achieve the objective on a site when you are familiar with what is being presented to you.


“Users spend most of their time on other sites, and they prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.” — Jakob’s Law

Jakob’s Law and mental models affect the way we design because people approach sites or apps with an expectation, and when that expectation is not met the person may think the system has an error and get confused about what to do next.


People will always apply this concept to all systems, especially new systems. This is why as designers we need to acknowledge, understand, make use of past experiences and expectations the user might have upon interaction.


Mental model discordance

When our designs do not align with the user’s mental model, this often becomes problematic. A mental model misalignment can change how the user perceives the system and the speed at which they understand the new design framework. This is called mental model discordance and happens when a familiar product is suddenly changed drastically.


Let’s use Snapchat’s redesign as an example.



Snapchat Images from soravjain



Snapchat Images from soravjain


As mentioned in many articles, Making drastic changes to their user experience the new design failed to meet the users’ expectations which left a lot of users confused with the overwhelming changes.


New designs are not a train smash when introduced slowly compared to changes that fully change the entire user experiences drastically.
Avoiding mental model discordance

There is value in understanding what users believe they know about the system because it strongly impacts how they use it. It is important to conduct user research to help make the usability of the system better.


The common gap between designers and users’ mental models can be solved through research such as:


  • User interviews
  • Personas
  • Journey maps
  • Heat maps
  • Card sorting
  • Empathy maps, etc

As a designer, incorporating research at every stage of your design can make your designs more impactful to the people you are designing for by build on the existing user expectations.


Adjusting the users’ experience

Understanding the concept of mental models can help you make sense of usability problems and errors in designs.


That is why it is important to observe how people use your site so you can identify mistakes the user creates due to mismatched mental models. You might also find that some innovations are not necessary.


Let’s look at Outlook.




You may have noticed that Outlook gives you an option to switch to the new version of Outlook and back to the old version with a simple toggle on/off button. Although it hasn’t changed much, this is a great way to avoid user mental model discordance and safely introduce a new version without disrupting the usability of the system.


When you have switched to the new version, Outlook has introduced short tips on how to make full use of the new version and remind you where everything is placed. Also, it’s a great way to test which version users prefer.


Tips to introduce new experiences to your design
  • If the goal is to challenge a mental model, think of how it can impact the user. Sometimes the research will show you that users are dropping out of your system and going to other sites to meet their goals. So always test out any changes before fully rolling them out.
  • When making changes, minimise discord by empowering users to continue using a familiar version for a limited time or allow them to revert between the versions.
  • When implementing a new model, provide additional steps to assist the user come to terms with the new model. Steps such as providing instructions, labels, tutorials, and visual cues to help the new model become embedded in the user’s mind.
  • Limit the cognitive load by removing fiction, but also remember that not all fiction is bad. Only remove fiction that doesn’t serve value for the user as it should be. Provide real-time feedback to avoid users getting confused or frustrated.
Final Thoughts

It is crucial when trying to empathise with the user, designs need to shrink the gap between the designers and the mental models of the user. This will help maximize usability and align mental models.


Creating something entirely new is not necessarily inappropriate — there is certainly a time and a place for innovation. There is a need to decide on the best approach by taking into consideration user needs and be aware of any constraints before designing something unique that might impact the usability of the product.


Jakob’s Law serves as a reminder that people leverage previous experiences to help them in understanding new experiences. By leveraging existing mental models, designers can create great experiences that help users to focus on their tasks rather than on learning new and complicated mental models.


Sources consulted:

An introduction to cognitive psychology as an experimental science: University of York


Mental Models: Jakob Nielsen


Laws of UX: Oreilly