Here’s How Creating UX Mental Models Can Impact Your Web-Design and Interface

Albert Shepherd updated on 2020-10-12 20:12:58
ux mental models

UX designing cannot be completed in a vacuum. It is an integrated activity that requires the designers to understand, read, and comprehend a lot of things surrounding the customers. One of the ways designers use to resonate with their users is UX mental models.

In simple terms, Mental Models represent the desires and expectations a user has from the interface they access. It can be a mobile application or a website. The flow, information sharing, and structure that a user expects to see are essential to provide a better user experience.

So, it is not that a user will share his/her perspective with you directly so that you can create a design according to their expectations. These are the UX mental models that are ever-present in a user's brain. These models are created in a user's mind from past interactions with similar applications.

For instance, a user will remember the experience of using a weather app and will want to see the same flow and layout as any other weather application. In this article, we will explore how to implement a mental model in UX designing.

How to Improve Misaligned Mental Models

Since the UX mental models are imminent to create a user-centric design, it is imperative to use the right models for the design. Plus, even when you have already created a model, there is always room to improve them for creating better designs.

Misaligned mental models will lead to creating deviant designs that do not have the potential to create engagement. Hence, these models need to be realigned according to the user's preferences. We can improve the existing mental models via different methods;

  • UserBase Discovery: Before developing any type of digital interface, the UX researchers and strategies are given the task to find out the users of the product. Not every kind of user will use the product you will develop. Hence, the UX researchers are meant to find out the user base and create user personas. This will contribute substantially to improving and creating mental models before beginning with UX designing.
  • Detailed Onboarding: As a best practice, when you onboard new customers, try to get a comprehensive picture of their preferences with regards to your products and services. Knowing these aspects like their expectations, likeability to use a feature, or unwanted features will help you formulate ideal UX designs.

Improving the mental models makes you a better designer, a detail-oriented researcher, and creates a unique path for customer satisfaction.

  • Observe The Big Sharks: Considering that yours is a startup, you have built a website for your product. Now the task is to find out similar products in the market, especially the big sharks that are ruling the market at present. Check their websites and understand how they have framed the layout as well as the flow. This is because the big companies will most probably have teams of UX researchers and designers contributing to the UX mental models.
  • Real-Time Feedback: Iterative development is native to any sort of digital product development. Instead of ignoring the user's feedback, make it a mission to ask for your customer's feedback and make the changes in your mental models in real-time.

A mental model UX design is something that you will need to curate better application and website designs.

  • Empower the Users: Making changes in the application feature or design will be reflected at the user's end when they update the digital product. In this case, if you force an update, the users will not be ready for the changes and may end up abandoning the app.

Instead, it is better to first share the updated aspects of the application with the user and then give them the freedom to work with an updated interface. With this approach, the users will be ready for the changes and even embrace them.

How Can Mental Models Be Applied to UX?

To apply a mental model to the UX design you are about to create, you must clear the slate, which has been filled with your preferred layout and design. This is because your preferences and expectations from an interface might be different from that of the users.

Not only are there differences between user and designer's expectations, but there will be differences between the different users too. So, one user might want to scroll down to find more information about the product, whereas the other might want to access the CTA button and move forward directly.

The application of mental models in UX designing can be done with four core practices;

  • Jakob's Law
  • Card Sorting
  • Wireframing and Prototyping
  • Natural User Interface

Jakob's Law

Jakob Nielsen coined Jakob's Law which states that the users are spending most of the time on other websites. Due to this, they expect your website to work in a similar manner as the others. The expectations built by using one website will be transferred to your website. Not having the same experience is not good for your customer attraction and engagement.

Hence, as per the law, your motive must be to minimize the friction caused by these differences. BY creating UX mental models based on the existing customer experiences, we can make a similar experience and innovate and create a superior experience for the users.

Card Sorting

Card sorting is a technique to help you formulate the probable navigation your user will take to go through the website. This is important to sort out the application architecture and sitemap.

With this process, you will help your users find their way to the desired destination in a minimum number of steps.

Prototyping and Wireframing

Creating prototypes and wireframes is one of the best things you can do to create UX mental models. However, you need to conduct thorough research and identify the core aspects of your user's expectations for creating these elements.

We can say that creating prototypes is equal to conducting A/B testing with the user interfaces added with appropriate UX components.

Natural User Interface

By far, one of the most amazing and high-impact aspects of UX designing and research is a NUI or natural user interface. A NUI is equivalent to creating an invisible interface that is accustomed to the user's preferences, and they learn to embrace it naturally without you pushing it too much.

We can say that a NUI is something that feels natural to the user. Let's take an example; when the users swipe between the different home pages or close the application and jump to the home screen. Or when we read from a digital book, the way its pages turn is also a part of NUI.

How to Determine Users' Existing Mental Models?

There are multiple ways to determine the existing UX mental models. The benefit of determining the same is that you are better positioned to innovate and create an in-depth understanding of the end-user. There are multiple ways to assess the existing mental models, and the majority of these aspects have already been listed in the above section.

Let's go through them again here;

  • Card Sorting: Start by implementing the card sorting technique (read above to know what card sorting is). Using this technique, you will be able to understand how a user navigates through the interface to reach their destination.
  • Conduct Interviews: Although this step is not possible to execute on a large scale, conducting small-scale interviews is also helpful. Creating a mental model in UX based on the user interviews leads to understanding the user's preferences directly.
  • Surveys: UX researchers may not be a big fan of conducting online surveys, but knowing the user's preferences via surveys is cost-effective. Moreover, surveys help create an objective opinion about your user's expectations.
  • User Testing: This activity directly relates to finding answers via practical applications of the user's opinions and expectations. Determining UX mental models via this method might take some time, but it offers authentic results.
  • Competitor Research: This is an indirect method of determining the existing UX mental models as your competitors will also have created such models. So, going through our competitor's website, application, and other types of digital interfaces, you get to know what customers have been liking and interacting with.

Real Mental Models Examples in Web Design

We are surrounded by numerous mental models UX examples implemented by both small and large scale organizations progressively. Here are the top three UX mental model implementation examples.

  1. Google Search Bar: Earlier, the functions of the web address bar and the Google Search bar were different. But it came to Google's notice that the users wanted the URL bar to work similarly to the search bar.

So, they reprogrammed it to deliver the search results, and when you open google now, the cursor is automatically set at the URL bar. You don't have to click on the dedicated search bar in the middle of the page. This reduces the user's efforts increasing user experience.

  1. Facebook's Reaction Button: Facebook did not release its "Reaction" button universally. First, the function was deployed for a limited area and region to test its impact and implementation. Once the user gives a positive response, Facebook understood the changes required and then implemented the same on a universal level.
  1. Slack's Interactive Tour: Online app and web-based tools like Slack provide their users with an interactive tour to formulate new UX mental models on the go. They remove any scope of discord by sharing the process creating expectations easily.


Mental models in UX research and designing are one of the most efficient methods to create user-centric designs. These models give the designers a gateway to the user's thought process while making them aware of their expectations and desires.

Using the existing mental models combined with proficient research, the UX designers can create better and innovative designs that have the potential to create higher levels of engagement and interaction.

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