Mental Model Diagrams (Cartoon)

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We tend to carefully create our HTML and CSS, and meticulously place every pixel to our designs. We plan exactly where our content should be placed on a particular site. Among many other decisions we need to make, we always keep in mind to craft a great experience for all our users. But how do we know what our users really want?

One way is to understand the motivations that drive users in general. A mental model diagram can be created to do just that—to dive deeper and discover what users are trying to accomplish, and then create solutions that match.

In this comic, Indi and Brad introduce mental model diagrams to us and how we can use them to build better websites. You can also view a larger version of the comic here1.

Mental Model Diagrams2

Feel free to share your thoughts on mental model diagrams in the comments section below.

(il)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/mental_models_v61.jpg
  2. 2 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/mental_models_v61.jpg

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When not researching mental model diagrams, teaching workshops, or writing, Indi Young consults for non-profits, corporations, start-ups, agencies, and universities around the world. She is passionate about bringing empathy into the design process. One of the founders of Adaptive Path and the first Rosenfeld Media author, Indi energizes the growing interaction design and experience strategy communities. Her work is available on Slideshare and on her book site. Brad Colbow is a web designer living and working in Cleveland Ohio (USA). He is also the creator of the weekly web comic "The Brads" about two web designers trying to start a small company. You can follow him on twitter here.

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  1. 1

    Though a useful tool, a mental diagram does at times risk expanding the scope a project and also within the underlying (core) causes many are outside the remit of a given project. Also tuning a product / app / service to the emotional needs of a customer is an interesting but difficult task.

    • 2

      But it also helps businesses and stakeholders understand the larger picture of the problem they are trying to solve with technology. You can always scope it down from here, or break the project into phases, or remove the aspects that don’t align with the business strategy.

      I have found it much harder/impossible to work in the opposite direction, trying to redesign a so-so product to have a great ux when we don’t understand or haven’t identified the customer’s needs.

      • 3

        Likewise. There’s no such thing as having too much information if you have the right tools to sift through that information and make priorities clear. The mental model doesn’t expand the project scope, it expands our ability to build relevant products.

  2. 4

    I love it! thanks for the tip

  3. 5

    Always great to see one of Brad’s comics on Smashing!

    Personally, I can see how these mental models would be handy in day-to-day life. Who knows, you might end up with the foundation for a good app :)

  4. 6

    Wow !!! Mind blowing.

    Excellent One. Reminded me of the Comic to Describe Comics. [This is not a Pipe.] ;-)

  5. 7

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and I think it makes great points. I would love to put something together like this for my site to try and determine the mental thought process of my visitors.

    • 8

      I agree, I enjoyed reading this comic / story and think any excercises that can help put the “business” in the users shoes can only help matters. I agree that the feature set could balloon, but its then a case of focusing on the goal and de-scoping accordingly.

  6. 9

    What an unbelievable way to explain this! It’s sure going to help me with my website design. Wow, it’s great. Thank you!

  7. 10

    If you work in an enterprise environment and have to deal with those that don’t quite ‘get’ what is going on with interfaces and behaviour, then this is the comic for you.

    I remember the one Brad did on personas, and every single person I showed that to completely understood the point and drove some real changes to the website after many, many attempts had fallen on deaf ears.

    Brad and Indi – please keep doing these so more people understand how do to things properly, so they can unlock budgets for us to build things that are truly special

  8. 11

    Michael Arnaldo

    April 23, 2012 2:53 pm

    Great article!

    Personally I’ve done a sort of spin off, but for my own personal life and goals. If the the time is taken, these help you create a better product, but also help you understand your own product and its goals better.

  9. 12

    Chathura Asanga Kulasinghe

    April 23, 2012 7:08 pm

    Wow!!! What a short, sweet, worthy and tremendous article!!! I truly, admire your vision as well as the creativity!!! I really don’t have enough words to explain it. You surely have developed a “Mental Model Diagram” on behalf of us, your readers — before you think and draw this nice cartoon!!! ( It absolutely touched the heart of the audience )
    :-)

    Thanks a lot!

  10. 13

    The personas comic that Ben refers to is http://thinkvitamin.com/design/how-to-understand-your-users-with-personas/ in case anyone wants to see it.

  11. 14

    Brilliant! I love this method and this comic does a great job visualizing the process for potential stakeholders. Rajat’s point on the potential risks and pains of the method is valuable info for anyone considering using the technique.

    It would have been nice to see the comic tie the insights from the mental model back into the dieting app.

  12. 15

    Abdulhamid Alattar

    April 23, 2012 9:44 pm

    Always good ux design needs special people who have the Psychological ability to understand their targeted users.
    I encourage any UX designer to study Psychology

  13. 16

    A very good way to discover emotional motivations is called laddering. It’s simple in concept, you just keep asking why.

    This is probably a bad example, but:
    “Why do you want a candy bar?”
    “It tastes good”
    “Why does it taste good?”
    “It’s so sweet”
    “Why is sweet good?”
    “Sweet makes me _happy_”

    Here’s a large article, there are plenty more around. http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2009/07/laddering-a-research-interview-technique-for-uncovering-core-values.php

  14. 17

    Chris Burbridge

    April 24, 2012 4:50 am

    This is brilliant! Thank you!!

    a) Comics are a great just-in-time way to communicate the essence of the information (and are very easy to digest)

    b) You are communicating ideas that are normally hard to communicate; that people usually don’t. Innumerable “100 cool shiny design tips” types of things online just replicate designers’ ideas about what is needed, reinforcing their existing beliefs about what is needed (“more shiny stuff!”), whereas this concretely gets people out of their own mental box.

    I’m inspired.

  15. 18

    An excellent article, Indi. Great read, beautiful cartoon.

  16. 19

    Great article/cartoon on mental models. I love to build these things over time. I use trello for my thoughts on different projects. I go through far fewer notebooks now :)

    Disclaimer: I don’t have anything to do with trello other than being a happy user.

  17. 20

    Great cartoon. I work at a very user-centric digital & product development agency (http://www.copio.us) and we’re frequently explaining a similar process we use to create functional specs. To (correctly) answer, “What should my product do?”, you have to first ask, “What do my users need?”.

    Notice I said need, not want. Doing what your users want will only get you so far — you have to think three steps ahead. Like the old Henry Ford quote, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

  18. 21

    I work at the US Agency for International Development and I can use this model to help me develop new approaches that impact attitudes and behaviors in developing countries for the better. Thanks!

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