why are mental models important?

adaptive path logo, blue on dark gray

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.)

Kate Rutter [KR]: Hello, I’m here with Indi Young, an Adaptive Path founder and the author of the new book, Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with User Behavior. Indi, tell us a little about yourself and how you got interested in mental models.

Mental Models light green book cover

Indi Young [IY]: I started out with a degree in computer science and writing code. At the time, there was not a lot of graphical user interfaces and engineers were writing code for other engineers. I realized there was a gaping hole where they never even considered how the code was going to get used by the end user. As I started writing software for people who were not engineers, this hole became more and more evident. During one of my consulting gigs with Visa, I was part of a huge team where one part was trying to figure out how to normalize the databases and the other part was figuring out how the end user — the representatives in a call center — was going to interact with the database. I saw them stumbling, and so I drew a state diagram to come up with a machine on paper that they could run variables through and come up with all these different scenarios. That was the genesis of the mental model. It was basically breaking from the software’s or the architecture’s point of view to the user’s point of view. Over time, I stopped focusing solely on the tasks they were doing, that went into the state diagram, and started focusing on motivations.

KR: Interesting. Can you describe exactly what a mental model is?

IY: A mental model is a picture of how your end users are supported by what you are creating. We draw mental models by audience segment — mostly a behavioral audience segment. If you are a non-profit organization and are trying to make sure that information about diabetes gets out to third world countries, then you’ve got a certain audience. You draw a picture of how they behave and how they find out information about diabetes and then you show how you support them. You understand if their motivation is to help a relative who has diabetes, then you support that motivation as opposed to approaching it from a different direction. You’re trying to approach it from the understanding of the end user and the world that they live in.

KR: You mentioned there’s a picture, what does that picture look like?

IY: It is hard to describe in text. The picture looks like a city skyline, basically, with a bunch of towers or buildings all lined up in a row. Those towers represent different concepts. The towers are grouped together in clusters that I call mental spaces. These are basically different things someone is trying to get done. For example, if your mental model is about getting ready for work in the morning, you might have a mental space about wakening yourself. Where some of the towers might be getting coffee, drinking that coffee, exercising, watching your morning shows on TV, or whatever you do to wake yourself up. Below this row of towers, if this city were on a lake, you would see reflected under each tower the things that your organization does to support that particular concept. For the concept of finding coffee in the morning, maybe your organization gives a map of all the places to get coffee near you. Or maybe your organization supports that tower in another way by handing out free coffee makers. The reflection is not an exact mirror reflection; it is a reflection of how your organization supports that particular tower.

short towers depicting part of moviegoer mental model supported by long chains of boxes underneath

KR: It’s almost like the foundations of the city.

IY: Yes, absolutely.

KR: I can understand what a mental model looks like and a bit about how you get at it. Let’s talk about what would a company use these for? Why are mental models important?

IY: The power of a mental model diagram is manifold. One of the more powerful things that you can do is use it as a ten-year plan to understand where you are with your business and where you’re going — where it makes sense to head next. Usually, businesses are pretty focused on what they want to get done in the near term, but not awfully focused on the far term. Mental models are a look at long-term, mapping out the different areas. Let’s say there’s a hole under one of these towers and you want to support that area or maybe one of the towers is weakly supported and you want to be able to provide better support, then the diagram serves as a roadmap to look at where these gaps exist. You then circle those and say, “Okay, we’re going to figure this out in 2009 and we’re going to figure that in 2010.”

There’s another powerful aspect of this: A lot of people in organizations these days really believe that the customer should come first. That’s a mantra, but they have a hard time getting into the customer’s head. So you ask them a question, “How is this going to help the customer?” They begin by responding in terms of what they as employees are going to be doing. But, it isn’t an exact match yet. The power of the upper half of the diagram is in the words that we use to describe the different towers and the different boxes in the towers. All those words begin with verbs. I believe that verbs enhance a reader’s — a designer’s or a business manager’s — understanding of what is going on in that person’s head. It’s really a great way to get inside somebody’s head.

Structure is another thing that you can use an alignment diagram for. The mental spaces, those clusters of towers I was talking about, map in a real way the structure; how you want to support the user. For example, if we were talking about a diabetes website, you might have sections in that application or product that correspond to the mental spaces of how a user takes care of their disease.

KR: So instead of taking more of a topical or content format approach, it’s really looking at how people think about the activity and the language they use to describe it. So with a mental model diagram, a company can recognize the difference between customer language and internal language and build services accordingly.

IY: Exactly.

KR: When you talk about getting at motivations, I know there’s been a lot of discussion in product development about gaining a fuller understanding user behaviors, especially motivations. How do you get at that information? How do you get into people’s heads?

IY: You can get into people’s heads via a lot of different styles of research. There are people that go out on field studies and do ethnography for days on end following somebody around. You can also get into a person’s head by reading diaries that people write that they open up to you or by conducting interviews with them–non-directed interviews–the interviewee defines the agenda. Any one of these methods is a great way to get inside a user’s head, but to translate any of those into a mental model diagram takes a little bit of work, a little analysis. What you want to do is make sure you’re capturing the root of why a person is doing something.

towers in mental model diagram about project mgt, Ensure Client is Satisfied with Work

It’s really easy for us, with all the knowledge and experience we have, to talk to somebody or watch somebody and see, observe, and hear, for example, that they hold a meeting every Friday. You’re like, “Okay, great. I’ve been in weekly meeting with my boss before so I have an assumption of what’s going on in that meeting” and then you skip right past that and forget to dive down. Maybe this particular person is running those meetings for other reasons. You really need to get into the motivations of it. Are you running this Friday meeting because you want to find out the status of different projects or do you want to discuss a shift in direction? You need to discover the reasons for holding that meeting and get in deep. You are going to get into emotions and philosophies. Actually, I hear a lot of philosophy when I talk to people about business, but I also get a lot of motivations. A lot of the time when I’m talking to people about these root causes, it’s something that they’ve assumed as well. They haven’t really enunciated before so there’s a lot of cogitation going on.

I make sure that their philosophies are captured when I draw those diagrams. I also make sure I’m capturing the motivation behind it, the behavior, the results from it –holding the meeting — and the emotion that goes on around it. For example, fear: “I’m afraid that if I don’t do these meetings then I’m going to get demoted or fired.” All of that is important. There’s been a tower in a lot of business-oriented mental models that I’ve done that’s been called “distrust salesmen.” It’s been loud and clear, people don’t want to talk to salesmen for obvious reasons, but of course I can’t say obvious reasons. The diagram has to say the explicit reason why, such as the salesman only wants to sell something that might not be the right solution. People go to great lengths to get around salesmen, but every single client that the tower has come up for has ignored the opportunity to try to avoid salesmen. For example, those clients could try to cultivate other sales channels that might be more amenable to their audience.

KR: It sounds like you’re trying to uncover the real truth–to be able to tease out the specific reasons why trust hasn’t developed is a real opportunity.

IY: Recently I was talking to somebody that told me a story about banks. Normally, if you go into a bank to make a deposit, you stand in line, move to the head of the line, wait until a teller becomes free, and make your deposit. The story was that there is this wonderful bank that lets you walk in and take a number, and there are couches and magazines for you to sit down and read until they call your number. It makes the entire waiting process a whole lot better. That particular solution would’ve been represented in a mental model, if that bank had created one. The tower would have represented customers getting tired when waiting or feeling like they were wasting time waiting in the bank. All of those emotions would have been captured in the data and shown in that mental model. Then the bank just supported that tower with a nicer approach.

KR: Can you tell us a little about your book? What should readers expect from your book about mental models?

IY: The book gives a “roll up your sleeves approach” to how to create a mental model diagram. It talks about the analysis process — that’s really the meat of the book. It also has several chapters on how to apply a mental model. There is also a chapter on an interview style that I used to collect data that would be something you could do in addition to field research or looking at diaries. I think the meat of it though is the analysis part. It’s really difficult to tell when you’re looking at data and transcripts when to include something in the mental model and when not to include it. The book goes through all these little rules: Is that a statement of fact or is that actually a philosophy they’re following? It helps you learn to tell what to include and what not to include in your analysis.

KR: So it’s like a blue print or a road map for how you would go about making a mental model for your organization.

IY: Yes. It starts with how to decide how many mental models to create. It talks about segmenting your audiences by their behaviors and coming up with an initial path at how many you think you should create. Then after you’ve done all the analysis, you can have a much better idea of who these people are and be able to come up with more solid answers to how many mental models you ought to have.

KR: How interesting. When can we expect this wonderful book to come out?

IY: I am anticipating around the end of January 2008.

KR: Great, it looks like we are coming to the end of our interview. Is there anything else you’d like to say before we close?

IY: I think I’d like to close with how mental models can be used for a lot of different situations. I really wish that I could do more cultural research. I’ve done a lot of research for different business organizations around the globe and I would like to start researching the different aspects of culture. I’ve done mental models for people who are dating, mental models of people who are choosing whether or not to go to university, these kinds of things. I think that’s a really interesting direction for mental models. And I’ve also been talking to people whether or not it makes sense to syndicate them. Can you reuse a mental model for a particular audience segment for multiple businesses that serve that audience segment? Let’s look at banks. There are a lot of banks out there and they have steady audience segments. Can you make a mental model for those audience segments and sell them to all those banks? A person selects a bank based on little subtle differences, like branding. Is there something different in the way one bank’s customers would behave than another customers?

KR: I can imagine for the laptop purchasing process, that Apple customer experience would be very different from Dell’s. They would have different mindsets and behavioral patterns.

IY: Exactly. There would be different motivations or different emotions.

KR: That’s interesting. I’ve often wondered about that because it seems there’s such a subject expertise you develop going through the process of making a mental model as a driver of that process for the company. It’s tempting and I know it doesn’t answer everything, but there are a lot of really good blueprints out there. I think especially for organizations and the public service area can really do with some high level or rough-cut. Maybe then they could understand what makes people different and then delve into the things they want to be unique about.

Indi, thank you for your time. This was fascinating — and I can’t wait to get a copy of your book.