What Do Mental Models Mean for User Experience?

What Do Mental Models Mean for User Experience?

What Is a Mental Model?

A mental model is a way of understanding how something works or how to approach a problem. It's a mental representation that helps you make sense of complex information and make informed decisions. Mental models are often based on past experiences, cultural norms, and learned concepts.

Mental models are an essential part of human cognition, and they can be used in a wide range of contexts, from science and engineering to business and personal relationships. By using mental models, you can simplify complex information and better understand the world around you.

For example, a mental model of how a bicycle works might include the idea that pedaling causes the chain to move, which in turn rotates the wheels. This mental model allows you to understand how to ride a bike and make adjustments to the bike if something isn't working correctly.

In summary, mental models are tools that help us understand the world and make decisions based on that understanding. They are an essential part of human cognition and can be applied in many different contexts to simplify complex information.

What Do Mental Models Mean in UX?

In user experience, mental models refer to the ways in which users perceive and understand a system or product based on their prior experiences and knowledge. These mental models influence how users interact with a product, interpret its features, and anticipate its behavior.

Designers can use mental models to create intuitive and user-friendly interfaces that align with users' expectations. By understanding the mental models of their target audience, designers can anticipate how users will navigate a product and design interactions that feel natural and familiar.

In the user experience (UX) design context, Jakob Nielsen from Normal Nielsen Group explains a mental model as “what the user believes about the system at hand.” This definition of a mental model points out that users come to an app thinking they know or at least have an idea about how to use it.

Why Are Mental Models Important for UX Design?


Mental models are critical for UX design because they enable designers to create products that match users' existing mental models, leading to better usability, satisfaction, and overall user experience. 

By understanding users' mental models, designers can create interfaces that are intuitive and easy to use, reducing the learning curve and minimizing errors.

Mental models also help designers anticipate users' needs, expectations, and behaviors, which enables them to design more effective and efficient products. For example, if a designer understands that users expect a certain action to result in a particular outcome, they can design the interface to provide that outcome, which can lead to a better user experience.

Furthermore, mental models can help designers identify potential usability issues before they arise. By analyzing users' mental models, designers can identify potential points of confusion or misunderstanding and design interfaces that minimize these issues. This can improve user satisfaction and reduce frustration, leading to more positive overall experiences.

User Personas: A Crucial Part of Working with Mental Models

The biggest challenge in using mental models for an intuitive UX design is the differences between user segments. The experience accumulated while using various devices and apps might differ from person to person. Digital literacy of people might change especially in different age groups.

The critical point, here, is developing a user segmentation strategy that is flexible enough to avoid overarching generalizations but strict enough to define several categories. A genuine understanding of the expectations and experiences of different user segments can be the only way for success in user experience design.

Testing New Ideas: Let Your Users Guide You About What They Expect

Designers might have some conceptual models in their minds, basically the models that the designers want the end-users to understand. These might seem perfect; however, designers may fail to create a pleasant user experience model.

The reason lies in the difference between what user personas would expect and what a UX designer in the shoes of a user does expect. Being in the field requires knowing all the details about the buttons and search bars, functionalities and possibilities. Yet, this cannot be the case for a regular user in any universe. In general, users’ mental models of the interfaces are a lot less advanced than of designers, which results in a case where users find it difficult to use an app, make mistakes, and get confused.

However, this does not mean that we should limit ourselves to what is already out there. If it were the case, we would not be able to see any change or progress. Mental models are in flux. New experiences result in new mental models. But this process requires comprehensive testing processes.


If you improve the existing mental models in UX and use familiarity in your app, users can focus on completing the task rather than learning how to complete the task.

Imagine popular apps like Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. What kind of familiar features can you detect when you switch apps? Likes, comments, stories, feed… With minor variations, apps adapt, and mirror features. As one of the pioneers, Facebook’s design has affected many other apps in design features such as notification icons. Our eyes are used to looking for them on the right top corner. There are many more elements users are using without thinking about it. Even if your app is very new to your users, familiar elements that are corresponding to users’ mental models will let users navigate your app easily.


Skeuomorphism is a design approach that involves incorporating familiar, real-world visual and sensory elements into digital or virtual interfaces to create a sense of familiarity and ease of use for users.

In other words, skeuomorphism is a design technique that uses analogies from the physical world to create digital interfaces. This approach can be seen in various design elements, such as icons, buttons, textures, and sounds, that mimic their real-world counterparts.

For example, a digital clock app on a smartphone may feature a clock face with hands that mimic the look of an analog clock, even though the underlying technology is purely digital. This design choice is meant to make the interface more intuitive and easy to use for users who are familiar with analog clocks.

Skeuomorphism was popular in the early days of digital design, but it has fallen out of favor in recent years as designers have embraced more minimalist, flat, and modern design approaches. However, some designers still use skeuomorphism in their designs to create a unique and recognizable user experience.

What do mental models mean for user experience?

Acting on Mental Models for Success

Recognizing mental models can help you improve the problems in your design. If you see people are making mistakes on your app, the cause might be their mental models. There are two things to do in this case:

  • You can change the interface according to the mental model of the users (you will have to assume that your target users have similar mental models). If they are looking for a button in the wrong place, put the button where they are looking for. Card sorting, user interviews, surveys, feedback, and competitor research can help you understand users’ mental models and you can take action accordingly.
  • You can improve users’ mental models with better onboarding, better and clearer explanations, and labels. If you are planning to change some features in your app, you can do them slowly to prepare your users mentally.

Understanding and researching the mental models of your app’s users is very important to create new features and refine the existing ones. Using familiar elements to help your users to jump on intended actions improves both your business and the experience of the user. Finding a balance between innovative and familiar is sometimes challenging and easy to ignore, but make sure that you always keeping mental models in front to bring the best user experience.

Thanks to Snapchat and Instagram culture, users know what to do when they see a small circle in the app! They click on them and discover the stories. Check out with Storyly how stories correspond to the mental models of your users!


İrem Isık

İrem Işık is a Head of Marketing at Storyly. She holds a bachelor degree in business administration from the Middle East Technical University and MSc. degree in marketing & strategy from University of Warwick. As a former brand manager İrem knows/writes about marketing tech stack, brand management, marketing strategies, growth hacking.

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