Saturday, April 13, 2013

Mental Models

One of the companies I'm associated with is going through a major website redesign project. My responsibilities, as an architect, are divided between back-end duties (e.g.: design reviews of enterprise components) and participating in review sessions of many artifacts of Information Architecture and Content Strategy delivered by an external vendor. I realized then that it might be worth to write a brief for project members about the origin of these artifacts and some of the decisions around user experience; a Mental Model.
Two books were used as primary sources of this brief which I definitely recommend to every information architect, web designer or project manager; Mental Models by Indi Young and The Elements of User Experience by Jesse James Garrett.

"The deepest form of understanding another person is empathy which involves a shift from observing how people seem on the outside to imagining what it feels like to be them on the inside".1

Empathy with a person is distinct from studying how a person uses something. In the context of application design, empathy extends to knowing what the person wants to accomplish regardless of whether he/she is aware of the solution.
Mental model gives one a deep understanding of people's motivations and thought-processes, along with the emotional and philosophical landscape in which they operate. It's simply an "affinity diagram"2 of behaviors made from data gathered from audience representatives.
Most research techniques can be categories into three groups (Table 1). Mental model is a generative research technique that allows researcher to create a framework based on data from participant. This framework can be used to guide information architecture and interaction design. Aligning functionalities in a proposed solution with mental model will depict gaps and how well features and functions support users to achieve their goals.


Research Method
Techniques used
What is it good for?
Preference
Opinions, likes, desires
Survey
Focus Group
Mood Boards
Preference Interviews
Card Sort
Customer Feedback

Visual Design
Branding
Market Analysis
Advertising Campaigns
Evaluative
What is understood or accomplished with a tool
Usability Test
Log Analysis
Search Analytics
Card Sort
Customer Feedback

Interaction Functionality
Screen layout
Nomenclature
Information Architecture
Generative
Mental environment in which things get done
Non-directed Interviews
Contextual Inquiry
Mental Model
Ethnography
Diary
Navigation and Flow
Interaction Design
Alignment and Gap analysis
Contextual Information
Contextual Marketing
Table 1 - Research Types matrix

To create a mental model, one needs to collect actual users' perspective and vocabulary. Essentially, you interview users and analyze the conversations to create a diagram called Mental Model Diagram; a process of Interview-Comb-Group in which audience representatives3 are interviewed, interviews are combed for tasks4, and eventually grouped5 to form a diagram.

Why use mental models?
Three main reasons: Confidence in your design, Clarity in direction, and Continuity of strategy (3 Cs).

Confidence in your design
Mental model gives your team the confidence that what they design is founded on research. Management knows that product of that design will be a success. And since it respect some of users' philosophies and emotions it'll makes sense to them.
Mental model can be used to validate ideas and requests for change. If a change request doesn't match a behavior in mental model it can be adjusted or respectfully rejected. A mental models also helps in avoiding politics. It can be used as an impartial evaluator when it comes to discussions over design decisions; solid data replacing one's circumstantial interpretation of problems.
Moreover, mental models represent the entirety of each audience segment's environment. That is, mental model becomes a mean to distinguish among solutions that are required to provide good enough coverage and support to those segments. If there are a lot in common among audience segments, a single solution might suffice. On the other hand, distinctively different segment demands its own solution.

Clarity in direction
While designing a solution or product, not only you should care about user experience but also align design decisions with organization's business strategies. Another word, a potential design idea can't evolve in isolation. Thus, decisions about user experience ought to be part of a bigger scheme; the "Whole Experience". Essentially, a design decision should be assessed for its impact on all the ways an organization interacts with its users. Jesse James Garrett describes the phrase Experience Strategy accordingly: Experience Strategy = Business Strategy + User Experience6. Mental model helps you discover the gaps in existing user experience considering your business strategy and, vice versa, find out what your business strategy looks like with existing user experience.

Continuity of strategy
Since mental model provides a clear direction, it naturally becomes a mean to prioritise solutions. Now that you know how your business strategy should look like to support users better and sustain7 (or what the gaps are in users' whole experience with your organization) new ideas will begin to emerge and some solutions no longer make sense or pushed further down the solution stack. In summary, a mental model with which solutions are aligned becomes a strategy roadmap.
Furthermore, a mental model becomes a place where decision history and rational is recorded. It helps you to preserve internal knowledge and becomes a foundation of decisions to come.


1. "Difficult Conversations" by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affinity_diagram
3. You'll have to start with finding what's called "Task-Based Audience Segments". The process involves finding groups of people in your audience who do similar things. From each group, depending on research project's scope and stakeholder's priorities, a few types of personalities are chosen to represent it. That follows a series of recruitments to find actual people who meet the criteria and are elaborate enough for interviews.
4. Finding tasks is not as simple as finding verbs in sentences. People aren't always specific in conversation and use things like tone of voice and gesture to depict a meaning. In this context, "task" refers to everything that comes up when a person accomplishes something; actions, thoughts, feelings, philosophies, and motivations.
5. Tasks are then grouped to towers and towers are grouped to mental segments of a mental model diagram.
6. http://blog.jjg.net
7. Sustainability may not always be a very important criterion. However, the cost of support for an organization without clear experience strategy could bring it to its knees. In the context of application development and maintenance the cost of support includes frustration and job satisfaction rate of staff at all levels and consequently innovation rate. For example, in public sector related businesses, lack of innovation and use of modern technology is recognized as an important issue (Citizen Experience: Designing a New Relationship with Government).
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