How To Design Mental Models That Create a Superior User Experience

by Leanne Byrom

Last updated on February 19th, 2018

“Much of this article is adapted or excerpted from the book Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with User Behavior by Indi Young (Rosenfeld Media, 2008).”

Designing something right requires that you completely understand what a person wants to get done. You need to understand how a person uses something if you’re going to get the design right for them.  You also need to know the person’s goals and the procedures she/he follows to accomplish those goals.

Mental models give you a deep understanding of people’s motivations and thought processes along with the emotional and philosophical landscape in which they are operating.

Let’s begin with a simple mental model that might be used by a company like Procter and Gamble to determine the needs of its market on a typical work or school day.

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design strategy human behavior

Mental model of a typical morning for people who commute to work or school. Young, Indi. 2008. Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior. New York: Rosenfeld Media.

Mental models guide the design of your solution and help you and your team make good user and business decisions by focusing your solution on what users actually need – based on the feedback they have already given you.

They can also act as a road map, ensuring continuity of vision and opportunity. A mental model consists of several sections, with groups within each section.

Put simply, they are affinity diagrams of behaviors made from ethnographic data gathered from audience representatives.  Affinity diagrams are groups of related things such as the groups of grocery items shown below.

Affinity Diagram Grocery Store

Affinity Diagram Grocery Store

Once you’ve made your mental models you then use it to understand how your current offerings (e.g. website, store front) do and do not support people. You can then devise your strategy going forward.

How does it really help me?

Essentially mental models give you three things:-

  • Confidence in your design
  • Clarity in direction
  • Continuity of strategy

Confidence in your design

This means that you know that what you have built meets your users needs.  Your confidence is based on the fact that you have a solid foundation of research on which design decisions have been made.

Clarity of direction

As a business, you need a “vision” and direction, and you need to examine the “whole experience” i.e. every customer interaction.  You undertake this when building your mental models, gathering, analyzing and acting upon this information.

Businesses that pay attention to the entire spectrum of customer interaction and experience – and who get it right most of the time – are those that win attention and loyalty from their customers.

Because mental models depict the whole of the user’s environment, and doesn’t just focus on one aspect or service, it’s the whole experience.  The entire experience feeds in to your vision for the business.

Below is the morning routine mental model with product categories from P & G added to begin fleshing out the vision moving forward.

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design strategy human behavior 2

Mental model with features aligned beneath it. (Features from the product category list from Procter & Gamble’s site Young, Indi. 2008. Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior. New York: Rosenfeld Media.

For an experience to be considered successful, your customers have to be able to use it easily and desire to use it.    There is often an emotional component to the use of things (such as your website) and mental models capture these emotions as well as the cognitive intent of the person or even cultural traits.

Only by meeting these needs can you be sure that you are giving the customers what they want – which of course has an impact on products.  This is particularly important for  eCommerce websites – where giving the customer what they want has a direct impact on sales figures.

Continuity of strategy

Once your mental models are in place, they become a guiding strategy for your digital teams for years to come.  Employees come and go, but your models will live on and you can ensure your strategy is followed.  Mental models of your audiences should be regularly re-visited in order to ensure your offerings are being kept inline with customer needs.

The three things that you can gain from mental models all lead to one thing – and that is increased competitive advantage.

Competitive Advantage

Given that you and your competitors offer similar products to similar audiences, one of the best ways to make sure that your business stands out  – and thus gathers and keeps customers, is by offering a superior experience.

Mental models help focus your business on the top-line value. They help deliver greater value to your customers or create comparable value at lower costs.   This adds to your competitive advantage.

So how do you do this?

Creating mental models is a team process. You create them through multiple workshops with team members and stakeholders in your organization, which helps develop understanding and innovation.

To begin,look at your audience and the type of tasks they undertake when interacting with your product. These task based audience segments are basically groups of people who do similar things.

Because you want to tailor your end solutions to fit each audience exactly, grouping audiences by differences in behavior is important. You then gather actual users and have a conversation with them, collecting their perspective.  This is usually in the form of an interview or one on one research. Look into audience personality types as well to help define your audience more.

Task Alignment

Task Alignment. Young, Indi. 2008. Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior. New York: Rosenfeld Media.

Next, analyze all of these conversations and composite them into a mental model diagram.  Compare all of the things your solution is supposed to do with the different parts of the mental model diagram.

Be sure you create a separate mental model for each of the audience types you have. Then compare the separate mental models to see what commonalities there are, if any, that you need to cover in your solution or if the audiences in fact require different solutions.

Understanding the differences among the mental spaces of your audience segments will bring clarity to your design.  Align the models with the concepts that they support.

You can do this with functionality (features) just as it exists, or functionality being planned – or you can play around with brainstorming new ideas.  (See June Cohen’s book “The Unusually Useful Web Book” on how to run brainstorming sessions)

Then, step back and look at the whole picture with your team so you can develop your long term design vision.  Once you have a vision you can start devising tactical solutions for high priority areas of the mental model.

Use your mental model diagrams to derive design decisions.

For example, if a tower in your diagram shows that people “collect pictures of renovated houses to mull over”, perhaps you could create an online scrapbook of renovated houses that they could engage with, study and even design their own – so that you can sell them DIY products or financing for a house renovation.

Following is a section of a mental model that might be useful for a website in the film industry.

On top are moviegoer behaviors and below that is the content that would be useful for moviegoers exhibiting that behavior.

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design strategy human behavior 3

Mental model for movie goers. Young, Indi. 2008. Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior. New York: Rosenfeld Media.

For detailed advice, and step by step processes and guidelines are further discussed in  Mental Models: Aligning  Design Strategy with Human Behaviour by Indi Young available from Rosenfeld Media.



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Leanne Byrom

Leanne Byrom is a Freelance User Experience Practitioner and Lead UX at Phosphor Digital with a focus on the role of digital in the end-to-end customer experience. Consulting with large and small companies alike in building best of breed online experiences.


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  1. Leanne Byrom says:
    September 27, 2012 at 8:03 am

    @Maneet Certainly SMEs have more of a challenge in terms of time and budget that large corporates don’t. My approach to this is to create the mental model in small chunks, so that time and money committments can be spread out.

    Initially you should map out your entire set of task-based audience segments. Gather any analytics that you may have – you can use free software such as Google Analytics. Look at your audience segments and rather than interviewing all possible customers in all segments, focus in on the highest priority segment and interview a small set over the phone.

    Recruit the interviewees yourself through an on site selection survey. This is cheap to setup and can be run through the likes of Survey Monkey. You need to interview four people minimum to start seeing patterns emerge, but aim for as many as you can afford. The stipend/fee for these people could be something like an iTunes or Amazon voucher of $25 – it doesn’t have to be too much.

    Rather than transcribing all the interviews, which takes time and money, jot down key notes or keywords during the interviews. These four or five interviews can be done in a period of one day with the mental model starting to be built the next day, and it will have catered for your primary customers. All for less that $500 and about 2/3 days of UX time.

    I think its important to remember, that even some research and data is better than none, and a small investment of $500 can go a long way in helping SMEs get to market quickly with a well targeted website that understands and addresses their primary customers.

    When the initial website starts to show a return on investment, you could then take a step back and consider addressing audiences that were not initially catered for.

  2. Maneet Puri says:
    September 27, 2012 at 5:13 am

    @Amanda – Yes you can use the data accumulated in your analytics and generate reports on users bounce rate, top landing / exit pages, time they have spent on your website, percentage of returning visitors, etc. to analyze behavior and activity of users on your website.
    @Leanne – First of all, A very informative article! Moreover, ways you have suggested like interviews, phone calls, surveys etc., these have always been effective for gathering data for analysis and better understanding of user behavior & psychology. In addition, without saying, these activities would require decent budgets to gather enough data to reach an effective conclusion and build a workable strategy, but what you think could be the ways for SMEs (Small Business Units) who do not have these budgets?

  3. Leanne Byrom says:
    September 25, 2012 at 8:33 am

    Hi Amanda
    I find out what the users are doing not only by looking at analytics, but also by interviewing them. One on one interviews with existing (or even potential) customers, is probably one of the most effective ways of finding out how your users behave – and also why they do what they do, as you have the opportunity to question their responses. Phone interviews tend to work best for us because it helps keep costs and travel time down, and we can also record and transcribe the interviews for further analysis. Once you’ve completed all the interviews, you can start building the model.

  4. Amanda Ingle says:
    September 24, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    This article is so great. Just curious how you know what your users are doing? Is this something that should be looked up in analytics? I am just curious how you get started with this model?

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