Do you know your customer’s Mental Models? News flash; not many do. Indeed, few of us actually even know what a Mental Model is. The concept is fairly simple, a Mental Model is what a customer believes about a system. By system, we mean anything from products, services, brands or the process of purchasing a TV through a payment scheme. It’s about more than just a product, it’s about how a customer predicts an experience with a system will play out, how they should prepare and what they should expect.
The Mental Model is born out of an experience. How the customer feels about their previous experience with your system and indeed systems similar to yours, influences how they perceive your business. Every interaction and every piece of branding and literature fuels their assessment of you and defines their mental models.
These models are the product of previous interactions, both with the service in question and with those of a similar ilk. Even companies which operate on a multinational scale are not immune to this type of thinking and approach from customers. Something to bear in mind when you are creating new designs for your product or trying to revamp who you are as a business is that Mental Models tend to be fairly stagnant. It is unlikely that customers can change how they frame your business. So used to specific ways of carrying out digital tasks and using particular interfaces, consumers would sooner thank you for designing your product with a familiar UX to others like it, than accuse you of copy-cat behaviour. As every designer knows, predictability in terms of how a product is used is so important for bringing new customers onboard, especially if your product has a transactional relationship with users.
The one exception to a design that meets customer expectations, is the hamburger menu. It doesn’t conform to what the customer is used to at all. A customer’s Mental Model causes them to look for a navigation menu on desktop and mobile, in the top of a web page or at the bottom of an app. The Hamburger menu hides the navigation, causing it to be used less frequently by users.
Culture has an influence on Mental Models. In China and in the West website and app design is completely different due to the different Mental Models that exist amongst customers in the two places. Mental Models are different due to mainly language. It is harder to search with Chinese words, therefore links are provided. Functionality is favoured over simplicity and aesthetics in Chinese web design.
Mental Models aren’t just about websites and apps and where to expect menus and various other types of functionality to appear, they influence the physical world as well. Customers, for example, expect certain products to appear in certain isles of the supermarket and next to other products of a similar kind. This preferences towards where products are located is carried over into the digital world when customers expect items to be found on websites under specific product categories. But as mentioned, this need for consistency in categorisation starts off very much in the physical environment.
Whether you are focusing on UX or designing an interface, understanding Mental Models in the first instance is crucial. Customers expect control, transparency and brand purpose, this must guide the way you build your apps and webpages.