Mental Models: Why They Matter in Product Adoption
Updated: Oct 13, 2022
How do we train people to use and adopt a product they are unfamiliar with, especially when language, cultural, and sociological barriers exist?
To answer that, I need to dive into the concept of mental models and how it affects UX research, behavioral change, and user decision-making. However, first, we need to know how people process information. For example, when a person is looking at an object, they only use 40% of their brain to process that object visually, meaning that a person understands the object's context in other ways, which is through their 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 of their acts and consequences. For example, suppose a person sees a $100 bill sitting on a table. In that case, they see a green rectangle piece of paper with words printed on it, representing one's visual response to that object, which utilizes 40% of the brain to make that connection. The remaining 60% is what that green rectangle represents to that individual and the tactile feeling that creates a connection between the person and the object. Depending on one's experiences in life, that dollar bill can mean drastically different things. For example, it can define loss to one person while representing financial success to another. The dollar itself can be crisp or soft and crumbly, also representing different lifecycles of that dollar. The point is, when we look at a $100 bill, we may 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 our identified consumer group's shared mental models, laying 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 in 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, which is our brain's way of protecting us from doing stupid things. We are always making associations based on what we have experienced before, which is how we make decisions going forward. When it comes to making decisions there are 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 we ultimately know how the user makes decisions. Understanding shared mental models leads to knowing 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 product adoption and 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. Mental model mapping helps us understand what outside forces or barriers prevent us from nudging our users in the right direction to help them ethically change unwanted behaviors. 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 and how it adopts 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