Mental model

Mental models represent a person's thought process for how an application or a website works. For example, if someone is using an app for the first time, they will have a mental model of how they expect the app to work based on their past experiences with similar apps.

Updated on November 24th, 2022

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Mental models are not set in stone; they evolve and change based on using other products or talking with other people. If the user we mentioned above uses that new app often enough, their mental model will evolve accordingly.

Why are mental models important in UX?

Understanding mental models is important in design because it helps designers empathize with how users expect an interface to work.

This allows designers to design a product that follows that mental model. As a result, you decrease the cognitive load for the users of your product, which is good for user retention and any user or business goals you might have.

How to determine user mental models

Studying a similar existing product can save designers a lot of time when designing a new product.

Early in your design process, user research activities, such as card sorting, user interviews, and surveys, can help you understand how your users think about an experience.

For example, you could observe users interacting with an existing app they have been using and ask them about their thought processes when going through the app. You can then implement these mental model insights into your design.

Later in your design process, user testing can help you verify your design. You can do research similar to what we just mentioned, but instead of using that similar app, you use your new design.

Mental model examples in UX

As a UX designer, it is important to remember that every user has a mental model in place for the designs you're creating. Here's a list of examples.

Likes

Most of today's popular apps implement designs based on existing mental models. For example, Facebook first introduced the 'Likes' feature, which is based on giving a thumbs up, as you'd do in real life.

Visual example of a like design pattern

LinkedIn, Instagram, and many other social media platforms then copied that feature because the mental model was already in place for millions of users.

Hamburger menu

One of the most used design patterns today is the hamburger menu. You see it in almost every mobile-friendly design. Google was one of the first major players to implement it.

Visual example of a hamburger menu icon

Yet, there are some UX issues with the hamburger menu. But because big platforms with a lot of users kept using the hamburger menu, the mental model of what it is changed in a way that users now understand what it is and how it works.

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Useful resources

Leveraging Mental Models in UX Design - Toptal

What Are Mental Models - CareerFoundry

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