Mental models are nothing but self-constructed mental figments of different elements in the real world. They are built by our cognitive senses upon years of experiences. They can also be defined as what we think we know about the reality around us.
These models help us navigate through the world seamlessly without having to relearn everything that we’ve been through. So in this way, when people go through similar journeys in life, their mental models guide them through and it gets better with time. Unless, there’s a radical change.
Mental Models are a sum of our past experiences. They are built on top of each other. But, they differ mainly based on culture, traditions, childhood, language, economic factors as well as geographical factors etc.
One good example would be ways of greeting people. One might be accepted in some cultures but the same might signify something offensive or hurtful in another culture.
They are also dependent upon the frequency of doing a particular action to get a desired result. If we do “A” and it results in success “B” repeatedly, we associate A with success and a mental model is formed.
Good designers know the importance of making products molded for their target audiences rather than making their audiences adapt to their products. This reduces the effort it takes to learn a new product and the end-user can start using it as fast as possible.
If you can time travel, you should take your digital computers, phones, watches; 2000 years back and show it to the people. You’d probably be called a heretic or even be stoned to death when people see all your demonic possessions. That is the mental model they live with. To them, concepts that are far above their understanding such as any piece of technology is purely evil incarnate and must be cleansed.
In German, they call it “Zeitgeist” which can roughly be translated to the spirit of the times. They can be defined as the intellectual, cultural, moral climate of the specific era. This era is always in a constant state of flux. This is what kindles our mental models and implicit behavior sets. The spirit of the times.
In the 1750s, people would still be horrified if you showed them handheld devices that can take photographs and store information that can be retrieved at any time. But now, you are less likely to be murdered. The mental models of people at that age are more curious and open-minded than ancient times. Most will probably try to understand how you do it and will try to replicate it themselves. In short, mental models of human beings are constantly updating to recent trends.
Today, we are more open to learning what’s beyond our understanding. It’s not weird that they call this the information age. Every day it is becoming easier to design for people and to associate their mental models with complex User Interfaces because they are learning new concepts and forming patterns.
An example would be India. 70% of India has started to consume information from the internet only since 2016. It has been a technological boom for the country and people are learning new concepts as well as making new mental models every day. What was once hard and ambiguous, is now the default for the people.
This made it possible for a variety of businesses and startups to thrive in the world’s largest democratic country. The designers of platforms like Myntra, Swiggy, Flipkart know that users have already gotten used to various platforms and their mental models are updated after making the internet cheap and accessible. This makes disruptive ideas to be communicated to people through the products that these companies bring to market.
Earlier, companies had huge disruptive ideas but the people were not ready to put their time and effort because it was expensive to do so. Often times, due to the inexperience that people had with technology, they simply ignored the plethora of digital products that were actually thoughtfully designed.
Let’s speculate how will designers make intuitive products based on the mental models for people in the future. Majority of the people will be completely familiar with the technology sector; and, digital Interfaces might be experienced through a different medium. We might ditch handheld devices, computers to favor more immersive experiences. Users will again need to learn new concepts and form new mental models.
Following this thought experiment through different human timelines, it is clear that the evolution of mental models will continue and there will still be a solid reason to follow the same principles of design for whatever we make.
The line between disruption and stability is becoming thinner by the day. People are becoming familiar with complex interfaces and this trend will only grow. Disruption and radical new concepts will be expected often because people will form relevant mental models faster than the present day. Satisfying this hunger for novelty of experiences will be a challenge for the future designers because even good products might start to bore the people soon.
Thanks for reading. I’d love to discuss more about this phenomenon if you are interested.