• Jillian Berry

Mental Models: Why They Matter

The question at hand is how do we train people to use and adopt a product that they are not familiar with, especially when there are language, cultural, and sociological barriers?

To answer that, I need to dive into the concept of mental models and how it affects UX research, behavioral change, and user's decision-making. But first, we need to know how people process information. For example, when a person is looking at an object, they are only using 40% of their brain to process that object visually. This means that a person understands the context of that object in other ways, and one of those ways is through mental models.

Mental models describe someone's thought processes regarding how something works in the real world. It represents their surrounding environment, the relationships between its countless parts, and a person's innate perception about their acts and consequences. For example, if a person looks at a $100 bill, visually, they see a green rectangle with words on it. That's the 40% visual. The remaining 60% is what that green rectangle represents to that person. Depending on that person's experiences in life, that dollar bill can mean very little or everything. It can define loss or financial success. Think of the feeling of that dollar bill in your hand; is it crisp or soft and crumbly? The point is, when we look at a $100 bill, we may visually see something similar, but it may represent something different to each individual based on unique experiences.

Why Does this Matter?

Understanding mental models allows us to develop strong UX strategies and anticipate what people will need from us and how they will respond to our products. For example, here is a sample of a mental model research exercise, when developing a feature for user testing:

1. Normative: What should users know?

  • Conduct an interdisciplinary literature reviews, expert panel, UX research

  • Create expert model

2. Descriptive: What do users already know?

  • Conduct qualitative interviews and quantitative surveys

  • Identify relevant wording and decision contexts

  • Create lay model

3. Prescriptive: What do people still need to know?

  • Comparison of expert model and lay model

  • Identify knowledge gaps and misconceptions

  • Iterative message development

4. Evaluation: Does it work?

  • Randomized controlled trial, comparing risk communications to control group

Using this outline, we can pinpoint the shared mental models of our identified consumer group, which lays the foundation for how we approach the ideation process. For example, let’s say we want to determine if we should use the color blue as our global branding color. We can use the method above to determine shared mental models on color theory in different cultures to determine how the color blue will affect product adoption within each country. We use the process above in each country where our brand will be heavily integrated, and we determine through that process that people in South America view the color blue as very masculine. In contrast, people in Africa view blue to be very feminine. Based on this information, we will work with our product and marketing teams to align the perceptions of our brand due to the strong mental models around the color blue in these countries.

How do mental models affect decision-making?

Our brains process so much, and without mental models and schemas, we would be stuck in the abyss of information with the inability to make decisions. Everyone uses mental models, and it's basically our brain's way of protecting us from doing stupid things. We are always making associations based on what we have experienced before, and this is ultimately how we make decisions going forward. When it comes to making decisions, there are actually six steps to making a decision:

1. The Cue

  • An action needs to cross the user’s mind/something has to cue them to think about that action.

2. The Reaction

  • A user will intuitively react to an idea in a fraction of a second/ A reaction can trigger an action.

3. The Evaluation

  • A user may briefly think about the action consciously, evaluating the costs and benefits.

4. The Ability

  • A user will check to make sure the action is feasible and if there are any logistical problems.

5. The Timing

  • A user needs to gauge when they should take action based on urgency.

6. The Experience (Mental Models)

  • A user will compare their past relative experience to determine if taking action is worth the effort.

As you can see, mental models are the very last step in a person’s decision-making. So as an organization, it is imperative to understand each user group’s shared mental model so that ultimately we know how the user makes decisions. This leads to our understanding of how they decide to use and adopt a product.

How does this affect user training?

If we can understand our user group’s shared mental model and how they perceive and make decisions around products, we can approach training in an impactful way. For example, part of understanding mental models is understanding what motivates or hinders the user; it also involves understanding how they make associations. These are elements that go directly into developing trainings.

Another part of why we want to train users is to ethically change unwanted behaviors. Mental model mapping helps us understand what outside forces or barriers prevent us from nudging our users in the right direction. We need to do our part to help remove all unnecessary barriers for our users so that they have the best opportunities to understand the product to maximize their ability to understand and adopt our product into their way of life.


When we are solely looking at UX, mental models play a drastic role in our users and product. It assists our team in understanding our user groups, how they make decisions, how they associate with our product, and what they need from us to learn and adopt the product. Understanding their mental models also allows us to nudge the users in the right direction through ethical behavioral change. Pairing mental model practices alongside other UX research and robust UI features give users the best product experience possible.


Here are a few books and articles I recommend around this topic:

Mental Models Indie Young

Start at the End: How to Build Products that Create Change Matt Wallaer

Mapping Experiences Jim Kalhbach

Nudge Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

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