does tower size mean something?

The other day, Douglass Turner asked me a good question. Here’s what he asked:

“One thing unexplained in your book is how to interpret relative length of the bars in the mental model diagram. In fact the vertical axis is (oddly) unlabeled. My Tufte instincts recoil in horror and disbelief in an otherwise lovely book. Could you please say something about the meaning of length? ” Read More

are interviews the only way to build a mental model?

I get many variations on this question, “Are interviews the only way to build a mental model?” The answer is no, interviews are not the only way. There are many sources you can analyze, some of which are even richer than non-directed interviews. Here are some ideas. (Please comment if you have additional sources to mention.)

Rich Data Sources
  • Non-Directed Interview
  • Contextual Inquiry
  • Ethnography
  • Field Study
  • Retrospective Review (with video)
Data Sources Requiring Inference/Guesswork
  • Customer Feedback
  • Call Center Recordings
  • Diary

cat mental model diagram

As the saying goes, aliens will someday look at our internet and think we are a planet run by cats. For amusement, I talked to a number of cat owners, asking them to interpret what goes through their cats’ minds during a typical day … or during a particularly memorable event. Here is the cat mental model diagram that resulted, sketching out some of the feline philosophies and feelings that facilitate some of our favorite friends.

the cat mental model diagram

Right after the book was released, Kate Rutter interviews Indi about what led up to making mental model diagrams, and why they are important. Indi Young Tells Kate About Mental Models & Her New Book

(This post was originally published at Adaptive Path. Since Adaptive Path became a part of another corporation in late 2014, the post is replicated below for posterity.) Read More

With all the fervor behind stronger, more responsive internet-based applications, the media has gotten more interested in user centered design. Next to stories about mashups in Business Week this week, there’s a little blurb about using mental models to guide software design.

screenshot of blurb on Business Week about mental model diagrams

undercover mental model

Yesterday someone asked me why I thought YouTube was so successful. I said it’s because of the content. That, and of course they were “in the right place at the right time.” But really, if all those videos were films of business meetings or financial presentations, how popular would it be? Then, at the BayCHI meeting at Xerox PARC last night, a YouTube interaction engineer said it was more. Read More

audience segmentation – making sure you don’t miss anything

Organizations fear risk, and as a response to that fear, employees dutifully try to record everything that could possibly be of importance. In audience segmentation, this means capturing hundreds of variables, which quickly becomes a barrier to actually defining and using the segments. Instead, use a behavioral perspective instead of these variables, and re-define how you approach audience segmentation.

(This post was originally published at Adaptive Path. Since Adaptive Path became a part of another corporation in late 2014, the post is replicated below for posterity.)

Behavioral Audience Segmentation

Design research is something that is widely practiced to produce anything from a better version of tax software to a new toy for kids. Its purpose is to understand customers (users) and match products to them. To date, most corporate and nonprofit research has focused either on persuading someone towards a “purchase decision” or asking current users what they’d like added to a product.

Smart organizations now want more: they expect design research to solve the sophisticated problem of meeting users’ broader goals. Organizations want design research insights to offer user perspectives wider than their opinions on one application. Ultimately, they want to spark ideas for “killer products” that will positively impact the company’s bottom line. It is not a surprise that organizations want their research to be as complete as possible and to understand as many user needs, concerns, and preferences as they can so opportunities aren’t missed and user segments aren’t left in the cold. Here’s one scenario that I encountered:

I’d been hired to conduct a design research project to determine how the Human Resources department at a 35,000-employee, multinational corporation should redesign their intranet. The project’s goal was to better understand what resources, tools, and options that the company’s employees wanted and needed.

“We know a lot about our users,” said my client proudly in our project launch meeting. “We’ve organized a lot of data about them.” She then displayed a spreadsheet with over nineteen different facets that her team had used to classify their employees (users), ranging from management level and geographic location to business alignment, gender, and aptitude for computers. Each of the nineteen facets had 2-10 sub-categories under them pushing the total number of facets to over 65.

“All these parameters will affect how an employee might use the intranet,” she continued. “We were afraid that we missed something, so we’re also considering including career goals, what they value about their work, whether they’re an acquired employee, and things like that.”

After perusing my client’s extensive spreadsheet, an executive voiced the concern that had become paramount to many gathered at our meeting, “How are we going to be able to interview representatives of each of these groups in the space of a few weeks? It would mean talking to hundreds of people.”

This wasn’t the first time that I’d encountered this scenario. Organizations often compose extensive lists of user-experience facets that they want to use to define every possible type of user. They track as many facets as possible because they don’t want to miss anything that might be important to any one user or group. The extensive list of facets is then used when embarking on a project, either to map solutions or plan design research.

So, the crux of the problem is this: how does an organization be complete yet efficient when conducting research? When the business, budget, and time constraints call for 20-30 research interviews, how can all of the facets of each user get coverage? And how can you convince your co-workers and top ranking executives at your company that the research you’re conducting is valid and that every facet has been addressed?

The answer is a slight adjustment of perspective.

Ask yourself what facets affect your users’ highest-level goals as defined within the scope of the application (or product) you are providing. In my client’s case, would a young female part-time factory worker in Malaysia have different goals than a senior male administrator in the office headquarters regarding the company’s holiday schedule, vacation time, pay, or retirement programs? Are the goals that each of these users is trying to accomplish as significantly different as the role they perform at that company?

What I’ve described is the first step in a technique I call behavioral audience segmentation.

Behavioral segmentation is a technique that defines your target audience by the approach they take to achieve a goal. My client didn’t need to segment 35,000 employees by the exact role they played, where they were located, their computer aptitude, their career goals, etc. She could classify them instead into four audience segments based on what they were trying to accomplish regarding all aspects of their relationship with the Human Resources department.

Interviewing a handful of representatives from each audience segment (versus hundreds of users) is much more achievable within budget and time constraints. And it’s simple to explain which facets affect the user segments’ goals to co-workers and executives by showing how you derived the segments from the all-encompassing variable list that you started with.

Most importantly, behavioral segmentation puts your team in the right frame of mind for insightful design research that very probably will uncover that “killer product idea.”

logistics for user research abroad

Doing user research abroad doesn’t have to be daunting. Keep these logistical tips in mind; you should have no problems working with participants from around the globe. You’ll get excellent results when everyone is comfortable, clearly understood, and compensated for their time.

(This post was originally published at Adaptive Path. Since Adaptive Path became a part of another corporation in late 2014, the post is replicated below for posterity.)

User Research Abroad: Handle Logistics in Four Easy Steps

In our industry, we are often asked to conduct non-directed interviews by telephone with audiences around the globe. This presents several logistical challenges. We need to:

  • Present the interview in a culturally appropriate way.
  • Communicate clearly with people who don’t speak our native language.
  • Collect their thoughts without warping them to our own perspective of the world.
  • Send them a stipend for their time.

Fortunately, there are simple, clear ways to accommodate linguistic, cultural, and monetary differences when conducting user research. Follow these four easy steps for a successful interview abroad.


In many countries — including Japan, Hong Kong, and China — participants expect to be introduced to the subject matter before the interview. They feel more comfortable if they know they will be part of a valid study for a known corporation.

To address this, we send all participants an introduction to the subject matter before setting an appointment for an interview. Here’s a sample interviewee brief:

Thank you for your interest in the research project at [ABC Corporation]. We are going to interview 24 people from around the world, representing [various job roles]. You have been selected because of your job role and because of your interest in furthering understanding between everyone involved in your business.

Our interview will take 60 minutes, and we will have a translator on the telephone so that you can say things the way you normally talk about them. We are interested in hearing you talk about the way you approach your job. We want to hear the details of how you make decisions or solve problems. We will not be talking about catalogs or Web sites. We are interested in all of your decisions, no matter what tools you use to carry them out, no matter what vendors you interact with. We are delighted to have you participate in our research, and we look forward to meeting you on the telephone!

You’ll want to have someone translate the interviewee brief before sending it out, which brings us to our next step.


If your interviewees speak a language unfamiliar to you, of course you’ll require the services of a translator.

Often global companies ask their own employees to perform translation duties. Like the participants, translators will also require a brief that introduces the subject matter.

In the brief, you’ll first need to familiarize your translator with the non-directed interview methodology. Explain that it involves getting to know the interviewee as if you were meeting him or her at a dinner party. Just like at a dinner party, you ask your companion questions based on the conversation so far, not based on a list of things to talk about that you have written down on your napkin!

Note that you’ll want to keep the conversation natural, and encourage translators to relay the words of the participant literally, and not interpret them to “make more sense.”

Finally, explain the interview logistics, such as, “We expect you to join us on the telephone before we dial in the interviewee, and when the operator dials the interviewee, we expect you to make the initial greeting in their local language.”


Even when working in your native language, you want to record your participant’s perspective, not your own interpretation of their story. To achieve this, take a transcript of the conversation instead of taking notes.

Notes tend to be written in the third person, “He checks the total acid, and records it in his lab notebook.” In the third person, it is far easier to record your own perspective by mistake. Perhaps you call it a lab notebook, but your participant called it the lab book. If you take transcripts instead, you have a much better chance of recording the person’s story rather than your interpretation.

When you add a translator to the communication channel, you increase the chance of the signal degrading. The translator will be speaking to you in bursts, after a few minutes of conversation with the participant in his or her native language. Ask the translator to speak in the first person, not in the third person. “I make a spreadsheet to track the buys,” not “He makes a spreadsheet to track his buys.”

The translator conducts the conversation on your behalf. If the participant gives one-sentence answers to your questions, ask the translator to prompt the participant to explain. For example, if you ask, “What project are you working on?” and the participant answers, “I run the production line,” the translator should prompt for more details.


When we conduct research, we often give the participants some kind of stipend for their time. We have found it much easier to send international participants gift certificates for merchandise on local Web sites than to try to wire them funds. The process is much easier and costs nothing more.

Wire fund transfers usually have a fee associated and involve the communication of personal bank numbers. To send gift certificates in most countries, all you need is a credit card number and some confidence navigating foreign sites.

Not all countries have Web-based merchants yet. However, most countries where we do our testing and research do. For example, exists as,,,, and in the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Japan, and France respectively. (We are hoping for China soon!)

The gift certificate form on a particular site is often the same from country-to-country, so a glance at the English version will tell you what values they want in each field. All you need is the participant’s email address, currency conversion, and a translated “thank you for your participation” message to paste into the comments field.


Doing user research abroad doesn’t have to be daunting. Keep these logistical tips in mind; you should have no problems working with participants from around the globe. You’ll get excellent results when everyone is comfortable, clearly understood, and compensated for their time.

get the right kind of details from a research participant

This is an early version of how to conduct a rich listening session, where you find out the thinking going on inside someone’s mind as she pursues a larger intent. For example, “I’m presenting to a class this afternoon–how shall I approach this class, and how should it differ from the last class I presented to?” At this early stage, I still referred to the mental model diagram as containing “task-analysis.” I have since dropped that vocabulary, because it has other meaning.

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