How fascinating it is that decades after the publishment of Norman’s book, the concept of mental models is still widely used. And now, the products are no longer limited to tangible products, but also digital, or even services…
Aurora Harley from the Nielson Norman group gave a great explanation of ‘Mental model’, where she used examples from web design to showcase how a widely accepted mental model can influence design decisions:
Besides, there are massive other mental models out there, commonly used, from the atoms in a design system (e.g. colors or icons) to components, or even journeys, brandings: Why green always stands for positive but red for alerts? Why navigation bars always start from the top (left)? etc.
For red being warning/stop, one saying is that it originally came from traffic signs. Red is the most visible color from distance, as the wavelength of red light penetrates further through fog, dust, and clouds. Besides, many objects in red are a sign of danger in nature e.g. blood, flames. All these facts trained us unconsciously seeing red as dangerous. Following this, red is always associated with errors or alerts in digital products. There are also exceptions. In some Asian cultures, red represents fortune, wealth or good luck, which potentially leads to a different mental model in certain contexts.
As for why web navigation always starts from the top left, I guess it might come from our reading habit. In most of the languages, people read from top to bottom, left to right. Thus in web design, navigations are always located on the top or left to give users guidance in the first place. Mobile apps, on the other hand, use the bottom nav more due to the reachability of fingers. In some languages such as Arabic or Hebrew, navigations are recommended to be mirrored to right-to-left due to a different reading direction. (see details on Google Material)
How a pattern becomes a pattern? — When the majority shares a similar mental model.
Once you noticed the majority of the users sharing a similar mental model you can see it as a UX pattern. And if you luckily found a widely-used pattern, embrace it. It will save you a lot of time and effort from building everything from scratch. Furthermore, users can also benefit from higher learnability, findability, and usability, as the behavior is more or less expected upfront. This is why I say mimicking is not necessarily a bad thing to UX.
However, do NOT skip the research period and directly copy from patterns. All design decisions should be based on research findings. Even if you recognized a shared mental model and accordingly the pattern for it, there is still a lot to consider:
- What is the context of usage?
- Did you cover all user segments and accordingly their needs, use cases and mental models?
- Is there any exception in the mental model (such as red in Asia, LTR reading in Arabic)?
- How would you validate your hypothesis of the mental model in future testing?