If you can’t understand a product - you can’t use it very well, even if in theory it does what it’s supposed to. The secret to good understanding is establishing a proper mental model. Mental models define the expectations that users have on the functionality of a product.

Three Mental Models

There are three mental models for any given product. The designer model is the mental image in the head of the designer. The user model is the mental image in the head of the user. In the ideal world, the designer’s model and user’s model should be exactly the same - meaning the user will know exactly how to use a product.

The problem is the only way the designer has to convey their model to their user is through the product. We call that the system model. The system model is the actual image conveyed by the product and written material. The better the system model is, the closer the designer model and user model will be, which in turn, makes the product easier to understand.

What makes a good system model?

Good system model designs rely on two components: clear instructions and feedback. The design should make the operation apparent and provide sufficient instruction so the user understands how to perform the operation. The design should also give the user enough feedback to make them aware if they are performing the operation correctly.

It can get even trickier because different users might have different mental models for the same product. Imagine you are on a social media platform designed to create and connect with study groups within a university.

Some users may view the platform as a product to make social connections. Others might view it solely as a means to get academic support. The priorities of these different types of users are inherently different. It’s difficult to define an obvious and universal user purpose for this platform.

Information architecture is heavily influenced by mental models. Because IA tries to best understand how to organize and structure an interface based on user needs and expectations, it’s important to understand how users perceive and approach a product based on their expected function.

In the next lesson, we will look at how to organize and evaluate content.


How can a designer communicate their mental model through the system model?

Check Answer

Designers use consistent features, descriptive feedback, and human-centered design principles to communicate the use of a product through the interface itself. Designers also need to keep in mind what the user’s model is in order to design the system model to match the user’s whenever possible.

Sign up to start coding

Mini Info Outline Icon
By signing up for Codecademy, you agree to Codecademy's Terms of Service & Privacy Policy.

Or sign up using:

Already have an account?