Mental models — customer education, expectation, & experience

Arya Alatsas

Account Director

11 August 2017

Experiences are created when the ‘mental model’ of your customers (how they believe something works and the ‘system model’ of your product or service (how it actually works) collide.

When they harmoniously meet, customers can rely on their intuitive understanding of how to accomplish their goals — allowing them to better appreciate the value you’re delivering.

But mental and system models don’t harmoniously meet by accident, the challenge businesses have is that they need to be bridged.

Start with understanding

Understand what your customers want, expect, and need in their current mental model and deliver accordingly.

Talk to customers, conduct usability testing, create personas to guide ongoing development, and be empathic.

We all have different experiences, assumptions, and make different observations. It is to be expected that people have different mental models from one another, that models fit the particular task being performed, and culture and context is important whether it be in relation to maps and places, people and relationships, time and sequences, or complex systems.

Nevertheless, what binds us together is the impulse to make sense of things we see by mapping them onto existing categories.

Behavioural psychologists, economists, and cognitive reasoning experts have extensively researched this topic. In aesthetic terms, when we are presented with an interface and something looks like a button, we want to push it. If there’s an empty box, we want to write in it. If there’s a screen on it, we increasingly expect touch recognition.

In functional terms, customers, despite their differences, commonly share fundamental goals and have an identifiable hierarchy of needs that inform their interaction.

This is part of the reason why there is so much convergence in the design of websites (e.g. the F-Pattern) and app interfaces. As Econsultancy’s UX and Interaction Design guide highlights, “predictability is particularly important for onboarding users, or for systems that have only a passing transactional relationship with users.”


Begin educating

Customers learn and mental models change when you:

  • Show and explain things to them with clarity;
  • Guide them through the journey; and
  • Speak to them with the language they use.

When we can’t map something to what we already know, we can find it confusing and at times even stressful.

Invest time in explaining what the new concepts and terms are with walk-throughs, tutorials and guides — managing expectations along the way. Use your content channels effectively in the right tone-of-voice — breaking down complexity and inserting lightness where necessary. Finally, go back to understanding and research to test if what you’re showing, explaining, and guiding is in fact having a positive impact on your customers and their overall experience.


A bridge too far

If understanding and educating doesn’t bridge the divide, it is worth asking whether your product’s system model is too far removed from your target customers’ mental model. For example, the average app loses 77 percent of its users in the first three days after they install it.

If your product or service is so difficult to understand and/or use that it gets in the way of its value, this will discourage customers and impact the overall experience they associate with your company.

The solution may be (once you’ve done your research) that it’s your product or service that now needs to change and not your customers.

TL;DR — Design to minimise the time customers need to spend learning your interface, to maximise the time they spend using your product or service and appreciating the value it delivers.


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