UX Word of the Day: Mental Model

During a recent vacation at Universal Studios Orlando (which is actually 2 separate parks), I thought I had a mental model of how public lockers work.

Universal Studios broke my mental model. Twice.

Prior to visiting Universal Studios, I normally would find an open locker and then insert coins or a keycode to retrieve the locker key.

But then, Universal helped me quickly create a new mental model. It was so easy to lock up my belongings before getting on each ride, I didn’t mind!

  1. Scan my park ticket at the kiosk
  2. Watch for an unused locker door to automatically pop open
  3. Put my things inside and close the door (which automatically locked it)

To retrieve my things, I followed the exact same steps above—no locker number to remember ever. And so all day long, I used this very clever locker system with great satisfaction.

On the second day of my Universal visit, I approached a kiosk and scanned my park ticket. Nothing happened. Wait, was it broken? I looked again at the kiosk. Oh, this one wanted me to scan my fingerprint. I put my finger on the scanner. Nothing happened. I read the instructions again. Oh, I’m not pressing hard enough. I press my finger harder. Nothing happened. This kiosk must be broken. I find a different kiosk. But the same thing happens. Clearly I’m not using the kiosk correctly. I ask for help. She tells me I’m doing it right. I try again. Nothing happened. By this time, my family is super annoyed with me. I read the kiosk instructions for a fifth time. Oh, I need to press a non-intuitive button on the kiosk screen and then follow the remaining directions.

Universal successfully created a new mental model in my head at one park, and then changed it at the second park.

Mental Model

A mental model is how someone believes something works based on prior experience or other assumptions.

How to Discover Mental Models

Rather than guessing or using your own mental model, it’s a super smart idea to talk to customers to find out how they think something works.

You may learn that customers have different mental models for the same thing. Think about a gear shift in a car. Some are attached to the steering wheel. Some are in the console. Some are knobs that you turn. Which one is correct or the “norm”? It depends on who you ask.

In these instances, help the product team find or design solutions that are the easiest for customers to learn.

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Author: Kristine Remer

Kristine Remer is an independent UX researcher & strategist in Minneapolis. Connect on Twitter @kristineremer