Talking Usability: Why Mental Models Are Important to Usability

by David Dick on 13 August 2014

A friend purchased a smartphone to replace her aging cell phone. She used the smartphone for one thing—to make phone calls. The other features and functions of her smartphone are unknown to her because she does not know they exist and does not know how to use them. She is easily confused by new technology because she won’t read the user guide. She relies on assumptions of how things should work and is frustrated when her assumptions prove incorrect. Eventually she “figures it out” on her own and rejoices with her new-found knowledge.

Cognitive psychology refers to the way we develop an understanding of how something works as a “mental model.” We develop mental models by observing what happens with a process and drawing conclusions about how the process works. Interestingly, we can possess an incorrect mental model due mostly to a lack of training.

You might be wondering why, as a technical writer, you need to be aware of mental models. I asked the same question myself. Understanding users’ mental models are essential to the development of instructions, tutorials, demos, and other forms of user assistance. If you don’t help users to develop accurate mental models of how a product is designed (e.g., a software program, website), you leave users to their own devices to develop their own mental models. If their mental models are not correct, users might have problems using the product.

To preclude users from struggling to understand the processes for using a product, offer them different avenues toward finding the information they need. Manuals, online help, and instructional videos can appeal to peoples’ various learning styles and offer multiple methods in which users can build accurate mental models of the product.

  • Marketing brochures answer questions about the product in a logical sequence following the reader’s train of thought. It takes only a few minutes to read a brochure and yet enough time to correct assumptions and increase awareness.
  • User guides. For user guides to be useful, they need to need to be written for various readers, ranging from those with little or no experience with the product to those with significant experience with the product (or similar products). If you follow the Agile methodology, then writing to the user stories can be a helpful method for organizing topics in the user guide.
  • Quick reference cards are ideal for anyone who wants to learn how to perform a few key tasks and refer to the user guide for additional details. Quick reference cards are an ideal takeaway from any kind of training course.
  • Help is useful because it allows users to search topics for individual tasks, as well as for patterns between common tasks.
  • Instructional videos help to reinforce concepts about how things work in a visual and memorable way.

To practice understanding users’ mental models for yourself, ask a relative, friend, or neighbor how they learned to use her smartphone (for example), and what they would do to learn something new. You will learn as I did that if we understand users’ mental models we can create documentation that is educational and informative, and help designers to develop products that provide a satisfying user experience.

The July/August 2014 issue of Intercom includes an article I wrote about why mental models are important to usability and practical approaches to understanding users’ mental models called “How to Design Documentation With Users in Mind.” If you find the article educational and informative, join me on 21 August when I host a webinar called Designing Documentation With Users in Mind.

I’m David Dick and I’m Talking Usability.

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