in Psychology

Building New Mental Modals

The new B&A article What’s Your Idea of a Mental Model? reminds me of an idea that’s been circling my head lately. In some respects, many of our most nicely designed products address the physical shape and perhaps the hardware-software user interface, but not the way the technical architecture contributes to our mental model. Sometimes advancing technology demands we adopt mental models that reflect the underlying technology rather than allow us to design user interfaces that mirror the old models that reflect the old user interfaces.

For example, we pick up a landline phone, hear a dial tone and dial. Now we look at our mobile phones to see that they are on and have a signal, then dial, then press send. It’s as if we combined the action of addressing a letter (punching in the number) with the act of opening a connection (pressing send/picking up the receiver).

Perhaps this transition was made generally understandable by the in-between step of cordless phones which introduced the modal states of being on or off, but once on immediately present a dial tone. Once we adapted our mental model to handle that modality the idea of dialing first was only one more step.

Of course, mobile phones bring a host of new issues such as audio quality, service coverage, and the ability to transmit data in addition to voice. These qualities may be understood by migrating our mental models of radio and computers. And because we’re basically using the electromagnetic waves of radio and the digital circuitry of computers, our mental models are following the actual underlying technology, not the grand vision a designer set down.

[ Bill Gaver’s work suddenly appears as an anti-example ]

This differs from the way I was taught mental models, which is that you first learn the models your users have, then reuse them in new ways. With our current pace of consumer technology we alter and combine more than we merely reuse.

Basically, I’m saying people are perhaps better at developing new mental models to fit the situation than we designers sometimes give them credit for. Sure, it’s not easy, but consumers have gotten used a certain degree of satisficing and ambiguity. This adaptability will only increase as the world becomes more complicated and each field of technology spawns new and more specific fields that we will accept without understanding.

A colleague recently tried video-on-demand (VOD) that is now offered on cable television in New York. For $4 you obtain the ability to play your choice of movie repeatedly for a span of 24 hours. The mental model was problematic, but it didn’t keep him from using it successfully. ‘Like Tivo,‘ he explained, ‘you can rewind and forward. But what are you rewinding and forwarding?