Monthly Archives: June 2011

Mental|Conceptual|System Models in UX

On my last ‘IxD for Developers’ talk at Hacker Dojo, I mainly emphasized on the importance of understanding  and differentiating  these models. Essentially, human beings are very different from one another. For this reason, we simply should not design for one type of user and should also not deny the fact that we all think/interact differently. To illustrate, engineers should not think like engineers when developing web or mobile apps. For the most part, in this talk, I tried to raise awareness in terms of designing interfaces that corresponded to user mental models, through better design of conceptual model.

A Summary of Definitions

  • Mental Model – think USER – the model that users have of themselves and of the outside world, formed through interactions, experiences, and instructions, and formed by user’s interpretation of a devise perceived action and its visible parts and structure
  • Conceptual Model – think INTERFACE – the actual model given to the user through the system interface, gives user the ability to mentally stimulate the operation of a system
  • System Model – think APP/DEVISE – how the system works inside, this part is like a Black Box to the user

In order to figure out an app or a devise, users gather several cues from the interface (the conceptual model):

  1. Affordances
  2. Constraints
  3. Mappings

In addition, users first try to mentally stimulate the object operation in their mind! So, imagine if your interface does not give all the clues needed for the user to (mentally) figure out how the device works. Your user is already confused, if not intimidated.

The Convergence Bicycle

This famous bicycle, mentioned by Donald Norman and drawn by Jacques Carelman, illustrates this point excellently. Although this devise is not ‘real’, you are most probably able to mentally stimulate its operation in your mind PLUS you are able to determine that this devise would probably not work. You did ALL that in your head without even touching or trying out the devise.

This illustrates a perfect conceptual model, as it communicates affordances, constraints, and mappings of the devise just through a drawing. And, for this reason, the outcome is a perfect conceptual model where the user is able to immediately tell how this machine is supposed to operate.

Some Fundamental Design Principles

  1. Provide obvious conceptual models
  2. Make things visible (and on the surface)
  3. Make users ‘see’ how things work
To Sum Up
  • Users are NOT interested in System models – they don’t want to know how things work INSIDE
  • System models have too much irrelevant information for the user
  • Users are only interested in Conceptual models because that is what they see and that is what will give them clues as to how the app works
  • Engineers do have control over the design and over the Conceptual model.  So USE IT!
  • Use affordances, constraints, and mappings to give clues to the users
  • If you think of these when designing your work, you will have happy users, which will increase the likelihood of them coming back to your app
Happy Coding and Designing!

‘Learned Helplessness’ in UX

One of the most fascinating studies in psychology is the condition of Learned Helplessness. The first time I ever heard of this study was back when I was pursuing my bachelors in Cognitive Psychology. This study, along with its results and possible implications, fascinated me and has had me pondering how this could affect our everyday behavior, decision-making, and ultimately our future.

The father of Learned Helplessness, Martin Seligman, initially performed his study on dogs. However, the outcome was so fascinating that his lab ended up doing follow up studies in order to examine its affects on humans as well.

Just to give you an overall view, here is Wikipedia’s definition:
“… a condition of a human person or an animal in which it has learned to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity is restored for it to help itself by avoiding an unpleasant or harmful circumstance to which it has been subjected. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.”

In plain English, when an individual learns that something is not possible, he/she will believe this, while feeling helpless, for ever! Well, ‘for ever’ sounds too strong but I am just trying to make a point here. Individuals presented with situations where they  believe that they have no control over, subsequently, will experience stress, helplessness, and withdrawal. This affect increases when the situation presents unpredictable events too.

Now, imagine if a web/mobile interface (a site or an app) presents users with situations of ‘learned helplessness’. What would the outcome be? In other words, imagine an interface presenting users with situations of unpredictability and loss of control. Not only would this make users feel like failures but it would also make them feel helpless. The amazing part is that not only would the user learn helplessness but, according to this study, even their audience would learn helplessness too. To clarify, when it comes to that specific interface, whoever watches the user and whomever the user shares the ‘story of helplessness’ with would learn being helpless too … even if they never themselves used that specific interface. This is a serious outcome that a ‘web-creator ‘would probably never find out!

So, what is the remedy? I strongly believe that raised awareness among web-creators is definitely a first step. Often times, as creators, we have hard time seeing and understanding how a user would truly interact with the web. Therefore, thinking like a user, although extremely difficult, may helps us create solutions that actually end up solving a problem, as opposed to creating additional problems for the users.

Disclaimer: I am sure many UX:ers, such as Donald Norman, have already made this connection and have extensively addressed it. I just had to talk about it too, as this topic fascinates me and feels close to the heart!