building mental model diagrams

Here is a comic about building a mental model diagram by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Reprinted below.


A year ago I was casting about for a new example to use in my mental model presentations. I wanted something that was more globally applicable than a kitchen remodel, which was our old example at Adaptive Path. (Imagine someone living in a tiny studio apartment trying to make sense of the task flow supporting the planning around custom kitchen cabinets!) I wanted a topic that was engaging, so that people would be interested. I wanted an example I could present globally.

Mental Model Diagrams

But first, let’s take a step back. What is a mental model? My mental models are diagrams that represent your team’s understanding of the thinking that various behavioral audiences use to achieve a set of goals in a narrowly defined scope. For example, you could draw a mental model of what people do in the morning to get ready for work. Different kinds of people might follow different habits, guided by different philosophies and goals. For example, one mother might include getting the kids ready for school in her morning routine, whereas another might do more of the preparations the night before, and another might require more from her kids. One person might include three trips back to their wardrobe to change clothes to match their mood, while another might have curated a wardrobe for the week. You could conduct listening sessions with people from other cultures in other countries to see what the differences in thinking are, if any.

Each listening session begins with a simple question defined by the scope as get ready for work. “How did you get ready for work this morning? … Yesterday? … One memorable day?

Sometimes the scope of a mental model might be broad enough that you could nest another mental model within it. For example, you could create a mental model of how people brush their teeth and nest it inside the “Get Ready for Work” mental model. Businesses creating mental models often start with a broadly defined scope and discover along the way that they need much more detailed data for a few key sections. These key sections become mental models of their own, and thus can define the direction of branched or refined offerings.

My mental model diagrams are charts that look like city skylines.
The buildings (towers) have windows (boxes or blocks in the towers) that represent thinking, reactions, or guiding principles. The towers themselves represent conceptual groups. There are thick vertical black lines that divide the towers into sections, and these sections each define a certain mental space (head space). So, in your “Get Ready for Work” mental model, you might have a tower called “Prepare My Face” that includes some boxes such as:

  • Check if I need to shave
  • Wash my face
  • Disguise how tired I look with makeup
  • Feel frustrated that the shaver is out of battery
  • Find the razor and shaving gel
  • Pause to consider the march of time evident around my eyes, on my face
  • Feel disappointed by the blemish on my chin
  • Emphasize the color of my eyes/outfit with makeup
  • Spend time trying to diminish the blemish

Maybe certain behavioral segments don’t think some of these things, in which case you mark the boxes with indicators of which audience segments participate.

Movie Audiences

It finally hit me one afternoon when I was reading an email from a friend about the latest movie from his favorite Japanese anime studio: Ghibli. Movies! People all over the world see movies. Movies are universally appealing. There are interesting behavioral audiences to take apart and examine. There is thinking that goes far beyond buying tickets. Movies are a subject that make people happy. So I set out to create a mental model about movie goers.

The complexity of my choice became evident the first day. I always perform a pre-segmentation as my first exercise, simply to stretch my mind and make sure I reach for a good range of participants. While it was fairly obvious that the standard G, PG, NC-17, and R rating system mainly represented mostly a demographic separation of age, there was the inkling of a conceptual aversion to graphic scenes. Would that be the only basis of behavioral audience segmentation? Would segmentation based on genre preference be appropriate? Or would there be too much cross-over in the thinking? What about segmentation based on people who tend to plan a movie outing in advance versus those who decide to see a movie on the fly?

So I listed all the thinking I could, from “Find a good parking space” to “Move seats when someone tall sits in front of you.” I included obscure tasks, like “Learn a skill you saw in a movie” and “Sing songs from the movie.” I ended up with a list of 173 items, which I grouped to make a more manageable number. Then I considered who was likely to do which thinking. I tried a few different angles and ended up with six hypothetical segments:

  • Social Movie Goer: tends to see movies to be with friends, be entertained
  • Movie Buff: likes to understand the craft of filmmaking, storytelling, acting
  • Big Fan: follows the work of a certain director, actor/actress, or genre
  • Film Purist: prefers a thought-provoking story or call to action
  • Make Believe Artist: enjoy submersing themselves in another world
  • Facilitator: seeks to please others by taking them to the movies

This hypothetical set of audiences, valid or not, was what I worked with to recruit my participants. The actual listening sessions and patterns I would derive would tell me the real segments. For example, I suspected the Movie Buff, the Big Fan, and the Film Purist were quite close in nature, but I needed to let some actual data to derive actual behavioral segments.

Listening Sessions

My next step was to recruit people who represented the different audience segments. To keep things within the scope of my time and budget, I chose to examine only the first four segments. While listening to these participants, I soon found out that I do not take movies as seriously as many folks do! I, myself, fall into the Social Movie Goer category. I began the listening session like this, “What went through your mind the last time you went to see a movie? … The time before that? … A memorable time?” The only prompting I did during the listening sessions was to find out why a person decided to go in the first place, if they didn’t tell me. The rest of the conversation was me diving into what they said to get to the bottom of why that was mentioned.

A word about listening sessions (which I earlier referred to as non-directed interviews): you don’t want to bias your data! Listen to a talk show host, like Terry Gross on NPR radio, and notice how heavily she guides the conversation to certain provoking topics. In your sessions, you want to do just the opposite. Let your participant do all of the talking. Let your participant guide the conversation and direct the order the topics. You will not necessarily hear about the same topics in each participant’s session; there won’t be correlation like that. This is not a survey where it’s important to ask the same question to many people and perform statistics on the answers. Each session is a unique conversation with a single person.

The Movie Goer Mental Model

The mental model that arose out of the analysis of the session transcripts begins with reasons for going and ends with following the industry. It is thrilling to see tangible mental spaces and towers appear out of all the stories. Below are the mental spaces and tower patterns that I found.

thumbnail of the movie goer mental model diagram with support aligned beneath towers

Thumbnail of the moviegoer mental model diagram. (Click to download PDF.)

Maybe not all thinking is represented in the model, but probably all the mental spaces are there. If I include more and more people, I am confident that new boxes and towers will find places among the existing mental spaces. This level of confidence in the patterns is what tells you that your data is valid. Mental models tend to shift very slowly, as well, so you have a tool that can guide your design and prioritize your projects for many years.

Next Steps…

I have yet to take the final step in the process: re-evaluation of the original audience segments. Remember how The Movie Buff, the Big Fan, and the Film Purist seemed to me to be quite close in nature? By tagging the actual boxes in the mental model by audience segment I will be able to see correlations between these segments, and will be able to decide whether some of them need to be grouped together.

Anyway, now know how much more there is to movie-going that meets the eye!

Do you think you might want to understand your problem-space a bit better? I’m available to help you in many different ways.

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