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How Mental Models Can Help in Making User Experience Better?

Pankaj Chauhan

Every business wants to provide its users with an exceptional user experience. But have you ever tried to figure out the roots of a good UX? Sure it is about the design and quality, but there is more to it. It’s safe to say that mental models are one of the main pieces in the user experience jigsaw puzzle. Whenever we visit a new website or try out a new app, we have this expectation somewhere in our minds as to how the experience will be. It is mostly because we already have mental models in our minds about how certain user interfaces work.

In this article, we will talk about what mental models are and how they are helpful for a better UX in mobile app and web development.

What are mental models?

Jakob Nielsen from the Nielsen Norman Group has defined mental models as what the user believes about the system at hand. In the context of UX design, we can say that mental models are what the users believe they know about a website, mobile phone, or other digital product. 

Knowing about users’ mental models

Understanding how the users will feel about a certain product can be of great help to developers. Not only will this give you a complete picture of what the users want but also an idea of what users will expect from the product you’re planning to develop. On the other hand, if you don’t have an understanding of the user’s existing mental models, there can be a big difference between the user’s idea and how your actual product is. This mismatch can lead to several disadvantages,  user frustration being the most common one. This will eventually make the user abandon your app or website.

Although there is always a silver lining. In this case, a majority of people often develop common mental models for common user experiences. For instance, if a person is visiting a new website or an app, they will already have a mental model of how the help feature works. It will be based on their past experiences with a similar website. It’s convenient to say that if your system is consistent with their mental model, the user will be able to smoothly navigate through your app and will be happy with their experience.

Assumptions we can make based on certain common UX conventions

There are certain common UX conventions for example in online shopping, based on which, we can assume what many users will expect and understand. For instance:

  • Colored buttons
  • Underlined links 
  • Search  or navigation boxes appear in the upper right-hand corner of the app
  • Logos are placed in the upper left-hand corner of the app

Using mental models to create a successful user experience 

When it comes to building a product, developers should keep an open mind. It’s not compulsory that a user’s mental model is similar to the developer. If you see people making mistakes on your site or app, the reason is often that they've formed a completely different mental model. And although you can’t change the UI at that point, you can always condition users with a more accurate mental model at an earlier stage of the user experience. And sometimes you might have to acknowledge the fact that users won't understand certain distinctions and that you yourself have to stop those same distinctions.

When it comes to a mental-model mismatch, you have two options:

  • The first approach is to make the system comply with users' mental models. For example, if the users are looking for something in the wrong place, then move it to the place they expect it to be. 
  • The second method is to improve users' mental models so that they more accurately use your system. This can be done by explaining things in a better way and making the features and signs clearer. A more transparent UI will make the UX better even if you don’t make any changes in the underlying system.

Some of the Mental Models matching techniques

Here are some of the techniques that you can include in your designing process for a successful UX.

  • Find out your user base

The most important part of understanding user mental models is by first discovering your user base. For this, you can carry out some user testing. Gather data from your user research and create user personas. When you have your user personas sorted, you can then design your UI as per their preferences. Also, don’t forget to test it on the users to find out if the features really fit with their mental models.

  • Research and learn

One other important thing for a designer is to keep up with all the latest design and development trends. The mental models that are formed in users’ minds are majorly influenced by big and popular brand apps or websites. So if you want to get a closer understanding of the popular UIs, you need to study the big sites and applications that are known to have a great user experience.

  • Card sorting

Card sorting is a UX design user testing technique that focuses on creating a good Information Architecture (IA). Through this technique, you determine the domain knowledge of your consumers and find out the best way to organize your IA as per their mental models. This way you can ensure they find what they need quickly and have the best user experience possible. Also, card sorting can help with navigation and menu structuring.

  • Prototyping

You can always create a prototype of your idea and test it with your users. Through a round of user testing at the prototype stage, you can find out if your product design has any disparities in terms of the user's mental models. Knowing this, you can restructure the system based on the feedback. Also, you will be able to make certain features or interactions more apparent to the users.


The developers and designers might know everything about UI design but there is always a scope of learning a thing or two from your users. So if you want to know the key to design the most user-friendly UI, you need to turn to them and know how they think, even if it means letting go of your most precious designs. Creating a successful user experience means harnessing your design knowledge to produce something your users understand. 

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