UX is all about the user’s experience. In fact, when site users come to your website, because they’ve seen many other websites, they have specific expectations on how a site should look and be used.
While this can make web design easier, there’s also the challenge of changing things up a bit. You may be tired of doing the same old and would like to experiment a bit. However, doing so can cause a problem for site users. This is because of a concept called mental models.
What are Mental Models?
A mental model is a term used to describe how a user interacts with a computer. In other words, a user has developed a specific idea on how something works on the computer, when interacting with websites, and more. A mental model is a point of reference that users apply to make life easier. They use knowledge they’ve gained from past experiences to help use a computer, smartphone or even an app. They have certain expectations and assumptions about where to find specific pieces of information.
The mental model is not a bunch of facts, but instead are beliefs and predictions. Consider your own use of the computer and other devices combined with the Internet. You can then see your own mental model and how it guides you through new websites, software, and more.
Now, it gets a little more confusing. Each of us is a unique being. As such, each of us has a unique past experience with devices and websites. So, each of us has a completely different mental model. While some elements are the same, our experiences are completely different, which creates a totally unique user experience, or mental model.
How Do Mental Models Affect Website Design?
Due to the wide variety of digital tools each of us uses each day, our brains create a different mental model for each interface.
Have you ever noticed how young children are able to adeptly use touchscreens? If they’ve grown up with these devices, the kids have created mental models on how flat things should work. You may have seen what happens when a young child tries to use a book for the first time. What do they do? They try to swipe the pages, rather than turning the pages. This is because their mental model says flat things should be swiped. This is a simple example, but you get the idea of how a mental model works.
Website users have similar beliefs and expectations about websites. If they’ve used the Internet for years, they expect that company logos should be placed in the top-left hand corner, links are underlined (or in a different colour), and buttons to sign up are placed at the top right-hand corner. While this isn’t the case for all websites, many sites are set up to meet these expectations.
Another example is the way site visitors scan or read a website. Many people use either the F-pattern or the Z-pattern. What happens is that site users will scan the page, starting from the upper left-hand corner, past the navigation bar, and down to the end of the page. Site visitors expect these things to be in the right places. If not, they’re not comfortable and may leave the site all together.
What is Jakob’s Law?
There’s a well-known law in web design, which is called Jakob’s law. It states:
“Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work in the same way as all the other sites they already know.”
If you’re a creative web designer, you may find such a concept to be limiting. You may feel confined to the laws of cookie cutter sites, where any deviation is seen as bad by the client. However, this doesn’t have to be a limiting concept.
Instead, think of it like this. With Jakob’s Law, there’s no need to invent a new concept for every single website. You can use solutions that users expect, but then do your best to make the most of smaller design details that can make a website unique.
Mental Models for Redesigns
Redesigns can lead to major issues for users. The reason? Because each change you make, that doesn’t align with the user’s mental model, makes the website challenging for them.
Remember Snapchat’s major redesign snafu a few years ago? They decided to change the app’s navigation. However, this led to users being faced with a confusing mix of Public Stories showing up in private Messages. The change was too drastic and created a huge challenge for users’ mental models. This led to a huge increase in negative reviews for the app, and a decrease in the company’s revenue.
Since that time, Snapchat has done a much better job when it comes to making small changes. Small changes that were simple, yet intuitive, made it easier for users to change to the new design. They didn’t find the changes to be dramatic or challenging to their mental models.
Mental Models: How to Get It Right
Research is a great way to learn about user’s mental models and then use them correctly. How do conduct this type of research? One method that’s often used is called “card sorting.”
Card sorting gives users a list of website elements that they then assign to different categories. There are three different methods of card sorting to try:
- Open card sorting: here the users create the categories and their names by assigning elements into groups that “feel right.”
- Closed card sorting: users are presented with categories that are predetermined.
- Hybrid card sorting: users are given predetermined categories, but they can also create new ones if they feel these are necessary.
Another method to use is called session recordings. Here, you record how site visitors use the website. You can see where a user scrolls, taps, moves the mouse, and more.
One more popular method to determine user models is heatmaps. These allow you to see which areas of the website are most often viewed. The heat mapping tool tracks clicks, mouse movements, and creates a coloured map of how the user interacts with the site.
There’s also the possibility of conducting a survey where you directly ask users about how they use the website.
Each of these methods can help you better determine how user’s experience your site. Researching mental models is a great tool to help you come up with unique designs, yet without running the risk of creating major challenge for site users!