An introduction to ‘Mental Models’

by Jeffrey Veen 15 Feb 2008 · 3 minute read

Congrats to Indi Young on the publication of her new book, “Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior.” Indi and I were partners at Adaptive Path and worked together for a bunch of years. I’m thrilled to see her insights into research and design process captured in such an accessible and informative book. And I’m honored she asked me to write the forward, which I’ve included below.

“You’re researching all the creativity out of this project!”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard designers, developers, and even business owners say this. It usually comes just after a project has begun, as I’m preparing for interviews with users. Designers just want to start designing, developers want to start writing code, managers want the thing to ship - so why are we spending all this time talking? And all this stuff just seems so obvious. Do we really need users to tell us what we already know?

I try to be diplomatic. “Maybe a few interviews now will save us lots of grief later,” I tell them. “Think of this as insurance: Let’s make sure we’ve got the basics right before we’ve designed everything and written all the code.”

But no matter what I say to convince a team to do research early in their project, I never let them know my dirty little secret: I used to be just as skeptical as them.

I’ve always believed in a user-centered design methodology. Even early in my career, when I was journalist, we always started with the mantra “know your audience.” Later in my career, I’d go to conferences and watch presentations with process diagrams - boxes representing users needs with arrows pointing to boxes representing product requirements. Intellectually, I agreed. But when I started a new project, in that intoxicating first stage when anything is possible, I’d jump straight to solutions. “Let’s use Flash for this part! And over here, we’ll design some awesome icons for navigation…” Our users were still important, but they were there to bear witness to how cool our designs were.

Then I met Indi Young. Indi and I were among the founding partners of Adaptive Path, a user experience consulting company that focused on research-driven design. We founded the company in the dark days of the Web industry. It was 2001. “Dot com” was a dirty word, companies were cutting their Web budgets, and projects were drying up everywhere.

It was then that “research-driven” started having real meaning to me. As Indi introduced her methodology and resulting visualizations, it became clear that she wasn’t just trying to make designs better in some abstract way. Rather, her process was simple enough to resonate with anyone on a Web team. And perhaps more importantly, it would help connect Web teams to other core parts of their organizations who were skeptical of spending even another cent on their web sites.

In the end, using Indi’s process, we were able to convince teams that we weren’t researching all the creativity out of their projects. We were researching the risk out. And no matter how the industry is faring, that’s a story people want to hear.

This book is an excellent guide to a research method firmly grounded in common sense. But don’t let the simplicity of the process detract from the power of the change it can enable. Talking to users in a structured way, analyzing in a collaborative way, and diagramming with clarity can transform the way you approach the Web.

And it might just ignite your creativity.