Imagine you have never used an iPad before, but I tell you that you can play chess on it. Before you turn it on, you will already have started building a mental model of how the chess game will look, how you will interact with it, and what you will be able to do. This is a different way of thinking about chess from someone who has already used an iPad, from someone who is a chess master playing on a physical board, and from the designer of the chess game itself.

Understanding the mental models created by your users is an extremely useful investment. People build up their own representations of systems and software in their minds, influenced by previous things they’ve used, assumptions they have, things they might have heard people say, articles they’ve read. Incomplete pieces of information lead to some wild assumptions that just happen to hold up against the evidence.

There are many inputs into the way a user thinks about your product, and you may be surprised to find out that users don’t always picture your system the way you do. User research is a key method for understanding the different mental models your users have, and how you can improve your design to communicate the underlying system better, or meet the expectations of your users’ thought processes.

Ask your users exploratory questions, such as;

  • What do you think will happen when you click this button?
  • What is going on behind the scenes when you start this process?
  • How does the system know what to show you?
  • When something changes, what causes it?
  • Why do you think this process works this way?
  • How would you improve this process?

Be sure to talk to different types of users with different backgrounds that might influence your model. For example, if you are building an iPad app, interview users who have never used iPads, who have used iPads but not used your app or similar apps, casual users of your app or similar apps, and power users. Don’t ignore the highly technical and un-technical ends of your userbase, as these are the types of users most prone to building up inaccurate mental models.

Techniques you can use to influence your users’ models include tutorials, explanatory text, illustrations and diagrams, and staged feature roll-out. Look out for future articles on these techniques.

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