To drive, you need not know how the internal combustion engine works or nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC) cells work in a Tesla. The person who drives merely imagines as he presses the accelerator the car revs forward and when he applies break, the car stops and when he uses the driving wheel, the car steers. That is all he needs to know.
Cognitive Shortcut or Mental Model
To quote Alan Cooper, in his seminal work “About Face 3, The essentials of Interaction Design”, “People don’t need to know all about the details of how a complex mechanism actually works in order to use it, so they create a cognitive shortcut for explaining it, one that is powerful enough to cover their interactions with it, but that does not necessarily reflect its actual mechanics”. It is this cognitive shortcut that a user makes adds up to his mental model.
What is a mental model
A mental model is a person’s internal representation of an external reality based on their learning and experience. We always compare our mental models with the real world. In short, we always expect things to work in certain ways. If something works the way it is expected to work, the user will use it. If not, the user will struggle.
User experience needn’t be a complicated task to achieve, provided that the gap between the designer and the user is bridged while building the mental blocks. It is a win-win for both sides when an intricate connection is established, assuring an enhanced user experience.
System Vs Interaction Models
In this context, we need to differentiate between The system model and the Interaction model. While system model is about How things work, the interaction model is related to how the user interacts with a product or interface. Engineers know how systems, let’s say a car’s engine, works. Or how the machine or app works. But an average user, let’s say a driver will not know how the car’s engine works but knows how to drive. It’s the job of the designer to fill the gap between system and interaction models, between users and builders. Hence designers need to know both system models and interaction models.
Build on what is familiar to the user
From a designer’s perspective, if you are creating something unfamiliar based on the familiar, for example; the concept of desktop, folders, files all taken from the real world because people are familiar that files go inside a folder and folder is stacked in a draw. So, the same metaphor is used when Windows OS came out with Graphical user interface which was entirely new back then. This helped users to make that cognitive leap. Another example from the history, the first cars looked like horse carriages without horses. Because people were familiar with carriages at that time, so they knew how to use it. So, the first designers of the car took this as a metaphor and designed the car, so people can easily understand how to use a car. If they had used an entirely different metaphor, something that people are not familiar with, they would not have used the car. So never go too far ahead of time. Never break users’ frame of mind. Once people start using something, they are based on something familiar, then the designers could evolve that paradigm till the driverless cars of today. A typically evolved paradigm is the first leather bound address book of iPhone and how it lost the leather-bound edges in the later versions, when users understood how the iPhone address book worked. Designers need to ensure that there is sufficient level of knowledge in the public consciousness, which again can be validated by the usage and user testing, a design can be evolved.
When you are creating an entirely new paradigm, make sure you teach users well and make sure it’s much better than what currently exists. Evolution of paradigm should be based on goals.
If a mental model closely matches the actual behaviour of the device or interface, then people make accurate predictions and correct decisions and choose appropriate actions.
So, if you know users’ mental model, the designer can make better design choices.
Redesigning the size of a hardware from a bigger to smaller but retaining the essential usability of it is the right way to go. Because space is premium, be it on a mobile screen or a car dashboard or interior.
Gender and culture centric mental models: For example – Someone who has not seen a gear of a car will find it entirely difficult to understand the nuances of traditional gear or knob gear. To address the gender and culture influence on mental models, the designer needs to research the users and understand the nuances of the mental model. This can be through usability testing. Usability testing will unearth the nuances of the mental model, resulting in the usability of the product or interface. When the number of users of a particular mental model are sufficiently large, the designer should take into consideration, the specific aspects while designing the solutions.
With the aforesaid points in mind, it is simpler to design an intricate form of Web content, taking into account the interactive approach and its internal connection with the user.