Product Psychology 101 ( Part 1 ) : For product owners, managers or anyone who wants to build great products

Mental and Conceptual models

This is the first in a series of posts about the basics of psychology, which people must know to create great products. These posts will essentially be helpful for people who are or want to be products owners, entrepreneurs, marketers and, anyone and everyone who wants to create exceptional, engaging products.

In this post I will cover mental and conceptual models which is the bridge between psychology and product design.

What are these and why do we even need to know about these before creating products ?

Mental Models

A mental model is the representation that a person has in his mind about the object he is interacting with. It is the way the person thinks about what it is that they are doing.

For example, when getting a book out of the library, they form a mental model of the things they have to do to achieve this.

Important thing to note here is that not all the people have the same mental models. It depends on factors like :

  1. Past experiences
  2. Intuitive perceptions
  3. Incomplete information

Mental models define people’s behavior. It shapes their actions in particular situations. It defines what people pay attention to and how people approach certain problems and how they try to solve them.

You must have figured out by now; it’s the mental models that shape how people will interact with your product, and thus user research of your target audience is extreamly important before you start designing your product.

Conceptual Model

A conceptual model is the actual model that is given to the person through the design and interface of the product. The screen, the buttons, the interface is the conceptual model. You are interacting with the product via its conceptual model.

For example a conceptual model for an online library is the website the user interacts with.


Why should you care about the mental and the conceptual models ?

Think about the Facebook ‘like’ feature and the Google plus ‘circles’. How are these two different?

Well clearly one worked exceptionally well and the other failed miserably. Why ?

When we see anything online, a natural tendency is to either like or dislike it. Its how our brains are wired. Facebook used this mental model and replicated it on the posts with a like button. It is so perfectly coherent with the mental model that liking a post or a picture seems so intuitive that it takes minimal or zero cognitive load. Hence, making “Like”, one of Facebook’s most liked ☺ features.

Now, let’s analyse what did not work for Google Plus.

One of the major problem that facebook was facing at that time was the privacy and content visibility setting with users. We may have a long list of these virtual friends, but may not be comfortable sharing all our content with all of them.

Google plus circles tried to solve this problem. What was different was that products conceptual model somehow did not align with the users mental models. Anyone can add you to their circles which doesn’t happen in real life. It was somewhat weird getting a notification that someone added you to their circle.

The problem was there but it was not solved in the way which was intuitive to the user. Thus G+ was hard to learn, hard to use, and thus finally was not accepted.

So what do we observe here ? When we create products in which the target audience mental models are completely coherent with the products conceptual models (user interface), what is created is an engaging, easy to use product. The products created keeping mental and conceptual model coherence in mind provide , what we call, an Intuitive user experience.

This means a minimal user cognitive load. Users don’t have to strain their mind to understand the product and navigation. They just start using the product effortlessly.

What if your product is completely new ?

Mental models are created from past experiences and what if users have NOT experienced anything close to what you are creating ? A good question.

How do we make a kid learn how to use a pencil ? We tell him how to use it, by demonstrating it. We talk about its properties like how things written with a pencil can be erased, unlike those written with a pen.

Similarly, for your product, a user who doesn’t know anything about your completely new product, needs to be trained. There has to be proper training, demos, in simpler terms, you need to handhold the user, till he learns.

We have to make sure that the experience is not annoying and irritating. We have to properly understand user’s mental model so that when he finally starts using the product, he does it effortlessly. The functionality and usage should come intuitively to him.

So that is all about mental and conceptual models. If you have any questions do mention in the comments section below.

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