Book review: Mental Models

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Everybody wants to design perfect products. And to do this a lot of designers think they’re applying user centered design. But most of the time they’re actually using themselves as reference. Fortunately there are several methodologies which can help you to really understand the target audience. One of them is the creation of mental models, of which Indi Young wrote a book called Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior.

With Young’s approach to mental models we’re forced to not only understand the audience, but also to only design features that they might want.

Mental what?
The idea behind mental models isn’t new. It has actually been around for some time. “Mental models are simply affinity diagrams of behaviors made from ethnographic data gathered from audience representatives.” They are “a tool to help you conceptualize your product, before prototyping and testing something.” It forces you to really understand what moves the target audience. What are their needs? And what is their mission?

Young translates this research in a model which combines two kinds of data. On the top you see a visualization of the behavior of the targeted audience. For example showing what the ritual of people in the morning is. It’s really important to depict the importance of each individual part, because some are more important than others. Below this visualization you map solutions/features you came up with during the design process. Every feature can only be mapped against one behavior. If it matches more, it means you probably have to split up the feature. And features that can’t be mapped should be put aside, since they don’t match the behavior they are useless.

Features and strategy
With this model you get a good feeling of the behavior of your audience. You see what’s more and less important. But what’s even cooler is the mapping of the features I just mentioned. How often does it happen to you that you end up in an endless discussion about features? Something like this:
“This feature is an absolute must. If we don’t use it we’re definitely not going to win design prizes.
“Kill this feature. Nobody wants it. I wouldn’t use it…”
“But how cool would it be if we could have this feature.”
“No.”
“Yes..”
“No.”
“Ok, you’re the senior.”

This discussion happens at every design studio . Designers want the best for their product, but are also proud of their own features. But with Young’s approach to mental models we’re forced to not only understand the audience, but also to only design features that they might want. The importance of a behavior and the number of features mapped should match in some way. If a less important behavior has more features than an important one, something is wrong. It sounds so logical, that it just has to be true…

It feels difficult to integrate this methodology in smaller projects, where they can be just as useful…

The complete process
The mental model I just explained is the end result of an entire research process. It takes several steps to gain enough knowledge and insight to create this model. In the book Young takes you along every step needed. She uses the example of going to the cinema to visualize her method. There are eight steps you should take:

  • Define task-based audience segments
  • Specifiy recruiting details
  • Set scope for the interviews
  • Interview participants
  • Analyze the transcripts
  • Look for patterns
  • Create the mental model
  • Adjust the audience segments

As you can see a big part of the methodology is preparing and doing the interviews. After this you analyze the transcripts and look for patterns. According to Young this is a very intense process. In the book she describes a.o. how you should handle interviews, how this can go wrong and how you get something useful out of it. The honesty and directness with which she writes is wonderful. She doesn’t claim to know it all and admits that some parts can be boring. In a lot of other books you often find a very clinical approach, where only the perfect situation is explained.

Big projects only?
The good thing about the book is the practicality. Young gives a lot of examples and tips. She writes about the ideal scenario and at the same time writes how you can do things fast. But the process she describes still takes a lot of time, even in the smallest form. Of course I totally see the use of the methodology and am very willing to get my hands dirty on it, but I also have to be realistic. Almost all customers I currently work for will not have the budget (or time) for this kind of method. And even with all the tips Young gives, it’s hard to create a light-version that’s thorough enough to make a true difference.

On the other hand I have to say that the idea is glued in my mind. In several conversations within design teams I did use examples from the book, which is a positive sign. I’m really convinced we should create mental models and map the behavior against product features/solutions.

When using Indi Young’s mental models in your process you will without a doubt improve the quality of your products for the target audience.

Strategy
The book is interesting for different audiences. It helps designers define which way to go, and what features they should and should not implement. When you have a good mental model it’ll help you through a lot of discussions. But the discussions won’t only go better in a design team… it will also help on a higher level. Product strategists and executives can use the model to convince the management which route to take. And if we have to believe Young it works for over 10 years…

Conclusion
The first thing I liked about the book is the enthusiasm with which Young writes. From the beginning until the end you feel that she really believes in this methodology. She writes in an easy to understand way, giving practical examples. The book can both be used to read in the train and used as a practical handbook.

The book gave me a lot to think about regarding the design process. I think it is a must read for design teams. When using Indi Young’s mental models in your process you will without a doubt improve the quality of your products for the target audience. But I do have to make a not that it feels difficult to integrate this methodology in smaller projects, where they can be just as useful. The moment Young comes with practical solutions for this situation I’m completely sold.

Book details
Mental Models: Aligning Strategy with Human Behavior
author: Indi Young
publisher: Rosenfeld Media
details: 299 pages, paperback

Jeroen van Geel

Jeroen van Geel is founder/chief kahuna of Johnny Holland and the interaction director at Fabrique [brands, design & interaction], a Dutch multidisciplinary design agency. You can follow him on Twitter via @jeroenvangeel.

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