In the words of Kenneth Craik mental models are representations in the mind of real or imaginary situations. |
Description: "In interacting with the environment, with others, and with the artifacts of technology, people form internal, mental models of themselves and of the things with which they are interacting. These models provide predictive and explanatory power for understanding the interaction."
In this article I shall look at mental models in Human Computer Interface (HCI) design. Human beings have a highly evolved faculty for conceptualizing reality and using these assumptions to understand, anticipate events and manipulate the world around them to achieve their aims. The process by which we begin to build mental models arguably happens even before we are born as we, for example, habituate ourselves to our mothers' voice and lullaby's. In effect it can be said that we program our minds to simulate and articulate schemata/ mental models much in the same way Computer Aided Design helps us create better tools. Perception plays a huge role when it comes to mental models. Being three-dimensional creatures we are limited by our senses, nervous system, and location much like how a computer can be limited by its hardware and software.
In the words of Kenneth Craik mental models are representations in the mind of real or imaginary situations. Mental models are constantly evolving with subjective experience and as such are not the same as objective truth. They may, and often do, contain errors and uncertainty measures. This is evident not only during the usability testing of user interface designs but also in more mundane phenomena such as optical illusions. The real utility of mental models is that they provide a simple representation of complex phenomena so that we may quickly resolve issues at hand. The scope of mental models is vast and applicable to almost every human interaction with other individuals, nature and the devices we create.
In Human Computer Interaction (HCI), users of a system tend to use it with mental models forming assumptions of how to use its user interface. This is one of the reasons why sticking to conventions is a key part of successful user interface design. Say you were developing a new word processor, would users be able to recognize your user interface design as such by virtue of previous use of another word processor? Being aware of what users know about a system and how they accomplish tasks helps user interface designers in a number of ways. They can create a user interface design with a gentle learning curve or a low error frequency and severity, for example. In other words interface designers have to decide which information about a system should be shown to the user and how. According to Amir Khella a crucial question for user interface design is “Does a graphical programming environment support innovation because it provides information in a format that is closer to the user's mental representation of the problem”? The rise in specialized wireframing and prototyping tools in the UX community might confirm this hypothesis.
In HCI, there are four basic types of models that come together in the form of user interface design. The user's model of the system is the model that users fabricate though interaction with a particular user interface design or system in general. The system's model of the user is fabricated within a system by way of information such as user profiles, settings, history/ logs, and errors. The conceptual model, according to Amir Khella, is “an accurate and consistent representation of the target system held by the designer or an expert user“. I referred to this particular model above when giving the example of developing a user interface design for a word processor. The designer's model of the user's model is more rudimentary in that it is fabricated by user interface designers by learning from pre-existing similar systems and by running usability tests, for example, using wireframe prototypes created with specialized wireframing tools. As such this model is created early in the iterative design process. These four models come together as users' sensory/ physical abilities and previous experience with similar user interface designs interact with the designer's use of tools and concepts to encourage a consistent composite mental model.
Mental models have their limitations. Much like in quantum physics whereby the act of observing matter actually influences the matter itself, mental models can be hard to quantify, capture and validate. Studies have shown that asking a subject about his mental model may modify the model. Moreover, mental models are usually built “on-the-fly” running in the background of the computation happening in our brains. As such a user interface of a system has to be designed to infer the correct mental model required to use the said user interface design optimally. This is achieved through the familiarity of conventions, simplicity in design (to help users concentrate on the task at hand), providing cues and visual elements, as well as complete and continuous feedback. A user interface design needs to be flexible allowing users to use it in a number of desired ways. Using the earlier example of word processing, think of the ways users can copy and paste (keyboard shortcut, right clicking the mouse, or using the menu bar).
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