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Mental Models

Mental Models

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Acting on Mental Models

Understanding the concept of mental models can help you make sense of usability problems in your design. If people make mistakes on your site, it is often because they've formed erroneous mental models. Even if you cannot change the UI at that point, you can still teach users a more accurate mental model earlier in the user experience. Or, you might have to acknowledge that users won't understand certain distinctions and then stop making those distinctions.

In case of a mental model mismatch, you basically have two different options:

  • Make the system conform to users' mental models — assuming most users’ models are similar. This is the approach we usually recommend to fix IA problems: if people look for something in the wrong place, then move it to the place where they look for it. Card sorting is a useful way to discover users' mental model of an information space so that you can design your navigation accordingly.
  • Improve users' mental models so that they more accurately reflect your system. You can, for example, explain things better and make labels clearer to guide users to form the right model (even though the underlying system remains unchanged).

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