Mental Model Theory for UX Designers

The mental model theory isn’t’€™t new, but as a specific theory with a name and identity, it’€™s just now making waves in the UX world. In truth, this is a form of psychology regarding the user expectations and perceptions of how a piece of technology works. This may seem at first to be a way to see a “cute look€ into how the non-technological perceive the inner workings of a design, but that’s not the case. Oh, it does absolutely provide that, but that’€™s not terribly useful. It does however, provide some useful insights.


Mental model theory is so useful, because understanding the user’s perceptions of how something works can give you the edge in designing the interface, order of processes and navigation patterns to present it in this manner, so that it makes sense to them by their own perceptions of the concept. However, this concept is not an end all solution, and it has some drawbacks if relied upon too much. While presenting the interface and interactions in the way the user perceives the mechanics can make it remarkably easy for them to adopt a design, it can also make them complacent in their desires to really learn the sciences behind technology. The problem with this kind of ambiguity is that while it does make accessibility of technology greater for users, it also promotes some semblance of ignorance in some cases. This is actually harmful, because it also makes people unable to handle problems they encounter, and in such a self service-centric society as this, that’€™s kind of swimming against the current. However, while abuse of this concept can breed complacency like that, use of it in moderation can be very powerful and efficient. Visualizing of various abstract forms of data and various processes actually makes them understandable to users. This is the driving doctrine behind graphs and charts, graphical interfaces and alert windows showing the progress of various steps being undertaken. This sort of concept, were it completely avoided, would not have given us visual operating systems, web pages, and other very visual and media rich computing experiences that we now love so very much. This sort of theory, however, will soon be opening up a new way to make programming and design more practical for increasing complexity in the future. Currently, technology designers are working out visual programming methods that mimic flow charts and other structures that will reflect the average mental perception of how programming logic works. This use of mental model in programming and instruction sets will open up programming and software design to many more people. As a result of this, more unique ideas and sources of design philosophies and solutions will begin to appear like wild fire once this sort of concept is perfected. For the moment, though, mental model theory is still relegated mostly to UX, where it simply must be used in moderation, using it as a way to see how users perceive the mechanics of software to make the design and presentation logical to them, but not so overly simplistic and vague that it reinforces ignorance or complacency. That’€™s a difficult balance to be had, which is why some are wary of broaching this too much.
Megan Wilson is user experience specialist & editor of UX Motel. She is also the Quality Assurance and UX Specialist at WalkMe Megan.w(at)