Creating Intuitive User Interfaces: The Primacy of the Mental Model

2141071329_9097e63c06_o“Intuitive” doesn’t have to be a buzzword. It can, instead, be a genuinely useful way of thinking about your UX design…provided you give “intuitive” a real meaning that begins with how your users think about their problems.

The word “intuitive” gets tossed around a lot, but it’s often used without any real meaning.  Jef Raskin described the term as having the “flavor of a nearly supernatural ability humans possess in varying degrees.” Furthermore, it’s a term often applied after the fact. If it appears that users can use an application to achieve their goals then the application’s user interface is “intuitive”; if users can’t figure out what to do next, then the application is “non-intuitive.” Let’s face it, a term that can only be applied to an application after the application is built isn’t helpful to User eXperience designers. If “intuitive” is going to be any use to us as UX designers then we need an operational definition of the word that can be applied during the design process.

Jared M. Spool goes a long way towards that by defining “intuitive” as the gap between what knowledge the user has and what knowledge the application requires the user to have. Where there is a large gap and no training/support to bridge that gap, an application is not “intuitive.” Where there is a negligible gap or the UI provides support for bridging that gap, the application is “intuitive”.

In Learning Tree’s User Experience Design for Successful Software course, this definition is made more useful by breaking that gap into two components:

  1. The underlying UX design, which must match the user’s mental model; and
  2. the user interface design, which leverages conventions and design patterns known to the user.

This post and my next one look at the how understanding the user’s mental models contributes to an intuitive design (I’ll discuss design patterns and conventions in later posts).

The Role of Mental Models

The key thing to recognize is that your users always have a mental model of how your application should work. They may have a model based on experience with working with similar applications or they may have a model derived from distantly related experiences. However they have come to it, your users’ mental model describes the fundamentals of how they should be able to achieve their goals: the steps involved, the kind of information required/provided, the way information is organized, and so on.

You have two choices when designing your UX: match that mental model or try to supplant it with another model. Obviously, matching the user’s mental model is going to result in a more “intuitive” UX than replacing the user’s existing model –  simply matching the user’s model reduces the knowledge gap. If you want to replace the user’s mental model you have a larger gap that you’re probably going to fill with training and/or user manuals.

Knowing the user’s mental model is obviously critical if you want to narrow the knowledge gap. Even if you intend to provide a new model, however, you’re going to have to learn what your users’ existing model is. It’s considerably easier to move users to a new model if you understand the user’s current model: Knowing the users’ existing model allows you to compare and contrast your new model with the user’s entrenched model and to discuss the benefits that result from moving to your new model compared to staying with the old model (and if you don’t make those benefits obvious, it’s unlikely that any of your users will adopt your new model).

There are many ways to determine your user’s mental models, beginning with interviewing users and asking them to describe the problems and tasks you intend to address in your application. Those descriptions can tell you a great deal about how your users think about the problems/tasks (their mental model). Observing them performing those tasks (or equivalent ones) while asking them to “think out loud” is probably even more useful (think of it as a usability test performed before you build the application). You can confirm your understanding of your user’s mental model by making up dummy tasks, determining what choices you believe your users will make and then having your users perform the task. Where their choices match yours you have some confirmation that you do understand how your users are thinking about the problem.

Only with this information in hand are you in a position to start crafting a truly “intuitive” user experience.

Learning Tree offers a wide variety of web development courses, designed to make you a dynamic web developer.

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