similar blue colors to the water pictured on the cover of Practical Empathy, with clouds in sky

You don’t always need to research the problem space. You might be in a steady state where you see a solid, successful path forward for the next year or two. But if not, there are some reliable tools to help you curate and apply the knowledge you gather: mental model diagrams, thinking-style segments, practical empathy.

When it comes to digital products, innovating with good intentions is not good enough. Most teams never intend any harm, yet the algorithms they create–based on their own background and experience–are algorithms that end up impacting a significant number of users negatively. Often teams never suspect certain contexts or edge cases exist, especially with algorithms that use data to guide interactions. To illuminate assumptions like these, surround yourself with different perspectives and broaden your awareness of diverse thinking styles. Know your problem space.

Most teams have an abundance of skills for solving problems, and only shallow experience (and time, budget, encouragement) understanding the problem space. The problem space is about understanding people and their larger purpose–and it has nothing to do with your organization, your offerings, nor users. Soak up a deep understanding of their inner reasoning and the way their reactions and guiding principles guide their decisions.The mindset of problem space research is about letting go of thinking of solutions for a time.


mental model diagrams & opportunity maps

example mental model diagram showing aligned support for towers in several mental spaces

Above is a mental model diagram from Rackspace. (only available as thumbnail) … For a detailed example, see the diagram published by the Employment and Disability Institute, ILR School, at Cornell University. (published paper)

The phrase “mental model” has several definitions. The one I use is “the model your team creates of how others think.” Mental model diagrams contain the reasoning, reactions, and guiding principles that pass through people’s minds as they seek to achieve a certain purpose or intent. These appear like a city skyline in the diagram. Below the horizontal line, an organization’s capabilities line up in support of certain conceptual towers above the line. Together the upper and lower halves form an opportunity map.

Since the data used to create the mental model upper half of the diagram is not connected to solutions, it does not go stale over time. Therefore you can add more data to the same diagram over the course of decades. Colors can depict different meanings; often above the line the different behavioral audience segments are depicted in color.

Outcomes of a mental model diagram:

  • Prioritize where to focus your resources next and stay true to business priorities
  • Apply broader perspectives and thinking styles to your new ideas instead of relying on assumptions
  • Identify gaps between people’s different approaches and the strength or weakness of what your services provide
  • Create solutions that listen and adapt to what users are trying to acheive
  • See where to telegraph the boundaries of what an algorithm or service was designed for (and for whom)
  • Get insight into new or missed opportunities with a clear, broad picture
  • Perform due diligence to reduce risk before investing capital
  • Seek new markets within the cracks and details of existing markets
  • Develop user stories precipitated from the data
  • Equalize internal politics, bridging divides and enabling communication and transparency


Thinking styles (behavioral audience segments)

Behavioral audience segments are much the same as personas, derived from listening sessions where rapport between participant and listener enabled deep dives into reasoning, reactions, and guiding principles going through the participant’s mind as they sought to accomplish a particular purpose or intent. Personas often incorporate demographic data and frequently lack context, and are treated as a person to design for, whereas behavioral audience segments are sets of people with common thinking styles. The emphasis is on the way they reason within a particular context.

Outcomes of behavioral audience segments:

  • Differentiate between your customers at a deep level, and choose how to support the diversity of their purposes & thinking styles.
  • Know what segment you can serve really well with your current capabilities, which allows you to focus
  • Postpone, decisively, segments who are not a good fit for you currently (avoid bogging your organization down trying to address them when you need to focus on the priority segments)
  • Map out when in the future you will address which segment
  • Measure how well your capabilities fit your segment in addition to measuring the market potential
  • Address the problem rather than simply adding to your feature set
  • Clarify where and when to create different solutions or nuanced customizations for different segments


developing empathy

Reasoning, reactions, and guiding principles are the components you forge into deep understanding when you take the time to really listen. Get past the explanations, opinions, and preferences, down to the deeper cognitive functioning of a person’s mind–to understand not just the reasons why someone decided something, but the reasoning, reactions, and guiding principles that guided that decision. An understanding of this inner landscape of a person’s thinking gives you much more to work with. This is developing empathy. This is the source of all the data in mental model diagrams and behavioral audience segments.

Outcomes of developing empathy:

  • Gather stronger, more actionable data for mental model diagrams and behavioral audience segments
  • Also apply listening and developing empathy within the solution space
  • Strengthen your ability to think from other points of view
  • Enable your organization to become more truly user-centered
  • Apply listening skills to direct reports, peers, and managers around you at your organization to strengthen collaboration and success
summary of outcomes

generate new profit

  • Generate new ideas from a more diverse foundation of thinking styles
  • Measure and fill gaps between people’s approaches and your solutions
  • Broaden horizons in expectation of catalyzing innovation

avoid wasting resources

  • See business priorities and stay true to them
  • Focus on a certain thinking style to establish a dependable presence in a market, rather than reaching too broadly at first
  • Quell internal politics with references to real-life patterns as guides
  • Delineate risks in supporting initiatives that might not fit your organization well

retain users by building trust

  • See how design decisions affect different people in different contexts
  • Escape from generalizing your solutions, recognizing that no algorithm does justice to all the thinking styles or approaches
  • Understand more edge cases so that your solution can respond with more awareness, and with humility when encountering an unfamiliar situation

fine-tune teamwork

  • Strengthen the organization’s collaboration ability by spreading stories from the people who participated in the research
  • Write user scenarios directly from the data, with complex real-life protagonists