What is a customer mental model?

Simply put, a mental model is what the user believes about a particular system. This system doesn't have to be a digital product or service, it could be anything from a supermarket store to the entire end-to-end journey of buying a car.

A mental model is about more than just your product

The customer's mental model, fairly obviously, is the basis for their predictions about how a system will behave, and for the actions they ultimately take.

These models are the product of previous interactions, both with the system at hand (if they have used it before) and with other systems. Pretty much all businesses, even arguably one such as Apple (which has an enormous influence on user behaviour), have to understand that a customer's interactions with a whole host of other products and services will inform their mental model.

That's why the keypad interface on your smartphone looks not unlike the keypad on an 'old fashioned' landline handset.

Mental models can change

Mental models can change, but they exhibit inertia. Even when a company offers what they deem to be a superior system, it can be difficult for users to break old habits. Snapchat is a good example of an app that new users, more accustomed to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, have often found difficult to use.

This inertia of customer mental models is why there is much convergence in the design of websites and interfaces. As Econsultancy's UX and Interaction Design guide highlights, "predictability is particularly important for onboarding users, or for systems that have only a passing transactional relationship with users."

The hierarchy of user experience components shown below, shows the importance of predictability and consistency in a successful UX.

hierarchy of ux components

The hierarchy of user experience components

The hamburger debate

The use of a hamburger menu on mobile and desktop interfaces is probably the most notorious recent example of design that doesn't conform to all customer mental models. A hamburger menu essentially hides the navigation and users are less likely to use it.

Some users' mental models dictate that they look for main navigation links at the top of the web page or the bottom of an app. A 2016 study by Nielsen confirms that hidden navigation (in the hamburger) is accessed less frequently than visible navigation. Accordingly, there are many websites and apps that have ditched the hamburger menu.

spotify app

Spotify ditched the hamburger

Culture influences mental models

Mental models have developed differently in different parts of the world. Culture has an obvious impact on mental models. Nowhere is this more obvious than examining the difference between website and app design in China compared to the West.

See my colleague Jeff Rajeck's article for a full explanation as to why this is, but it basically comes down to language (it's harder to search with Chinese characters, so more links are provided) and an expectation of 'one-stop-shop' functionality over sparse aesthetic design.

chinese website

QQ.com 

Design metaphors are used to build a mental model

Sticking with interface design, let's look at design metaphors. These metaphors take advantage of a user's previously amassed knowledge of the real world and help to assist the user when it comes to a digital interface.

Econsultancy's UX guide gives some great examples and points out that these metaphors may evolve over time:

..many interfaces feature a ‘toggle’ or ‘switch’ control to turn settings on or off. Everyone has used a light switch and inherently understands how tapping or sliding this switch will alter the state of the system.

It’s important to realise also that metaphors change over time and need to be rethought. The mouse and pointer, once ubiquitous, don’t exist on the billion touchscreen mobile devices in use today. The ‘Save’ icon has been a floppy disk for decades, but many users clicking ‘Save’ today will have never laid eyes on a physical one.

Some more examples of mental models 

Mental models aren't all about digital interfaces. But many bridge the physical and the digital. A great example is merchandising. Customers have a set idea of what products should be in which supermarket aisles, and this model translates across to online shopping, where they expect particular items to be found in particular categories (bakery, fresh, larder, frozen etc.).

Below is shown a more complicated example of a mental model, for movie goers. It's taken from a Crazy Egg blog, but comes originally from a book by Indi Young.

Though there's lots to take in, you can see that the top part of the diagram is a customer's model for choosing a film. There are plenty of criteria - Which directors do I like? What do I find offensive? Where will I go to watch the movie? etc. Underneath this mental model is listed all the information and functionality a company would have to provide to conform with the customer mental model, such as different searches, lists, categories, and the ability to rent titles (the model pre-dates streaming).

(Click to enlarge)

mental model movie goer

Mental models might also be developed or understood by mapping a customer's day, purchase journey or entire lifecycle.

In summary

Digital technology is certainly changing customer mental models when it comes to the purchase journey. Customers expect availability of information, control over their services, and even a level of transparency and brand purpose hitherto unseen.

Whether marketers are mapping customer journeys, designing a store or an app interface, understanding these mental models is incredibly important. Doing so gives confidence, clarity and consistency.

Ben Davis

Published 25 April, 2017 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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