Leveraging Mental Models for Superior UI UX Design



Picture this. You’re handed a mobile device – a different brand/model – from the one you use. Even then you’ll have an accurate idea of switching it on and using it. Why does this happen? Because, you have a mental model of how mobile devices work through years of handling them. 

Likewise, on a website or a web app or any mobile app. Even first-time visitors will have certain expectations about your site and navigate it using habits developed over time.

Now imagine a design approach that leverages already established habits. When implemented in UX designs, these psychological concepts can increase the effectiveness of your web design.

One of the most promising concepts related to human-computer interaction, the mentadesignl model approach is a superior choice for a straightforward experience-based design.

Let’s look into details about mental models, their significance in UI, and how they can be used to enhance UX design.

What are mental models?

The widely accepted definition states that a mental model is based on belief instead of facts. It’s a model of what your users know – or believe they know- about a specific system, for example, your website.

Rooted in philosophy and psychology, mental models explain how users already perceive how a thing or platform functions, even before using it. The prior knowledge influence the users’ responses to what they see, hear or feel.

A mental model isn’t a collective process. It may be similar, but never the exact duplicate as each user’s background is different. Therefore, every user has a different notion of the system on a website. For this reason, many designers face conflict when incorporating mental models in their UX design process.

However, when it comes to UX designs, mental models play a crucial role. You can analyze your design through user testing and implement more usable and intuitive designs by simulating those models in your design.

In short, a user’s preconceived notion about a platform is crucial in the design process. Depending on their existing knowledge, they will feel encouraged or discouraged to adapt to the platform.

Therein lies the critical role of designers in creating website model designs that match user expectations.

Below are proven best practices for leveraging mental models to create customer-centric UX designs.

Best practices for integrating mental models

Jakob’s Law:

Also referred to as ‘Jakob’s Law of the Internet User Experience,’ it was put forth in 2000 by usability expert Jakob Nielsen. Per the law, users expect your website to function similarly to other websites they have already visited and spent considerable time on.

For instance, shoppers expect to find the ‘shopping bag’ in the navigation bar.

If you observe that many of your site visitors perform the same missteps or make the same mistakes on your website, it could imply two things. Either your site visitors have developed erroneous mental models, or you as a designer have misinterpreted the mental model.

Therefore, ensure you’re implementing the relevant mental model into your web design by designing your site with patterns that users are familiar with.

Offer Natural User Interface (NUI):

In a design context, NUI is an invisible user interface. The underlying objective of NUI is to offer users a greater sense of accomplishment, and this goal is reached only when the design seems natural to the users. This is where mental models in UI design have a pivotal role to play.

For example, touch screen interfaces allow users to intuitively interact with applications and controls and applications compared to cursor-based interfaces. As it is more direct than moving a cursor to select a file and then clicking to open it, the touch screen successfully provides NUI.

Likewise, when the home screen pages imitate the flipping of the pages of a book as users swipe between the pages of their mobile devices. Swiping between the screens appears normal to the users indicating a successful NUI.

Designers can employ this technique to design elements and interactions that make users more comfortable interacting with their applications.

Card Sorting:

It is an effective way to understand how users categorize information provided in your designs. Card sorting is a user testing method to help you determine your customers’ mental models regarding navigation and how they potentially navigate around your website.

You could have open card sorting sessions, instructing your participants to arrange a pack of cards in meaningful groups. Then, you could ask them questions about their groupings to better understand their thought process.

Card testing helps you design your website’s information architecture to match users’ expectations. It helps minimize interaction time while enabling users conveniently access what they want on your website.

Integrating Mental Models and the Ways to Do It

While understanding how to design UX using mental models can be challenging, there are ways to integrate mental models into your UX design process. Here are some ways to incorporate them and boost customer engagement and conversion.

1. Create user profiles:

At the onset, develop a clear understanding of what your users expect by developing a user profile. Ask questions that help you clearly understand who your users are, their desired goals, and what prevents them from attaining them. Clarity on these aspects will you build a user persona. 

At the next level, ask questions about your customers’ demographics, including understanding their needs based on their identity. Cover details about their geographical location, age, profession, income, etc., as well as perceived obstacles that prevent them from addressing their problems. These details will support creating mental models for the later stages of your UX design.

2. Collective visualization:

Empathy mapping effectively removes inconsistencies between the customer and designer’s thinking. It involves a collective visualization of your user’s expectations of your website based on their experience throughout the process.

You could leverage a variety of empathy maps for UX readily available online to create a functional mental model framework. Empathy maps contain critical user information, which helps the design team analyze users’ expectations and thoughts on how the platform should work.

3. Card sorting for accuracy:

As you may have realized, card sorting with its direct and practical approach is a critical component in UX design. It will help you get an idea about what your customer expects to see on your webpage and offer insights into how they would like the content to be organized on the page. 

Closed card sorting, open card sorting, and hybrid cart sorting are examples of different card sorting techniques that you can use.

If you are looking for more comprehensive insights on the types of card sorting, click here to read more about Card Sorting in Design.

4. Data visualization:

Heatmaps provide a visual representation of the areas on a page that see more interaction. They are one of the most effective ways of understanding user behavior on a web page as they provide insights into the elements of web pages that users may or may not click on.

Here are some heatmaps you can specifically use for mental models-based UX design. 

– Click maps: Based on the user’s clicking behavior, they show the location and frequency of user clicks on the page.

– Scroll maps: They offer a visual representation of how users scroll through the page, including the points where they slow down and parts that they skip.

– Eye-tracking heatmaps: These track information about where the user is looking. They can be created through webcams or special eye gear for the purpose.

– Hover maps: These maps tell where your users were resting their mouse-pointer on a page. However, it could be less reliable as hovering a pointer doesn’t necessarily imply engagement.

5. Study market trends:

Today, most shoppers expect optional registration based on their previous experiences. This saves them time filling out forms and lets them check out as guests. However, according to a study published on Shopify, nearly 34 percent of shoppers abandon their purchases when it’s compulsory to have an account to complete the checkout process.

Market research can help you understand the market trends and your customers’ responses to these trends. 

If you compare two different web apps with the same industry, you’ll notice that there are common elements. For example, design patterns like the Hamburger Menu are common across websites, and using them, and other common design elements can be beneficial. 

Most often, mental models reflect popular trends. Therefore, market research can provide a richer understanding of user reactions to these evolving trends, which can be adapted into your UX design. You can then use this valuable input to create design strategies based on your customers’ expectations.

6.Design the blueprint:

With the available data, you can create a design blueprint integrating the mental models in designing the UX.

Your design strategy should blend inputs from corporate strategy and design thinking for two purposes:

– a corporate strategy to help the business grow

– design thinking to facilitate hassle-free user interactions on the platform.

Benefits of Mental Models for UX UI Design

Having skimmed through the best practices for mental models, we explain how they can enhance the overall output of your design initiatives.

1.Provides certainty:

Design processes that rest on guesswork are unproductive. Discrepancies in mental models impact the design. Leveraging information about disruptions can enhance the design process. Designers must therefore implement data-based strategies to create designs that support the user’s mental models.

2.Speeds up development:

The design process is time-consuming and can shoot up development costs. Mental models are an excellent place to start as they provide a basic idea of what works and what to avoid, thus saving time. Therefore, supported by relevant data, the UX design can be implemented faster and more cost-efficiently

3.Relevant innovations:

Mental model diagrams are an excellent resource for designers as they contain user trends. Designers can then develop them further by incorporating innovations to the primary layers without losing focus on the essence. 

4.Personalized experiences:

Customers are happiest when they find solutions tailored to their needs. Therefore, UX designers must consistently understand customer needs and deliver accordingly. By using customers’ mental models, designers can personalize UX solutions. Customized solutions go a long way in building loyalty, repeat purchases, and customer retention.

Confused Mental Models

When designing, you must avoid mixed-up or confused mental models. These typically occur when customers cannot clearly distinguish the significant differences between the similar parts of an application. Moreover, they can affect the findability of information within a system or product.

Some of the most widespread confusions about mental models that users regularly have to contend with include,

  • Window vs. Application
  • Applications vs. Icons
  • Operating-system windows vs. Browser windows
  • Native commands in a web-based app vs. Browser commands
  • Local vs. Remote/cloud info
  • Different passwords and log-in options (Many times, users try to log in to other websites like they would if they were logging in to their email)

An example of a mixed-up mental model is the Google Search Engine, where users often cannot distinguish between the URL entry field in the browser and the search field of Because of this confusion, they enter the URL in the search space instead of the URL bar and then access the website link from the search results.

Correcting Faulty Mental Models 

Every designer must ensure that their designs are in sync with the existing mental models.  

Introducing sweeping changes to existing designs that your users have become comfortable with will lead to conflict with the users’ existing mental models. Instead, you can minimize the risk of large-scale disruptions by releasing minor adjustments through several updates or testing changes with smaller groups.

Facebook has successfully leveraged this strategy. For example, its ‘Reactions’ were incorporated and tested extensively in specific regions before getting released globally.

You can detect and improve misalignments in your UX design by implementing some basic steps such as:

– Conducting usability tests

– Leveraging relevant UX research methodologies

– More emphasis on interactive tours

– Providing user-centric onboarding

– Monitoring and addressing real-time customer feedback


Incorporating established designs based on existing mental models can help you optimize the usability of any digital platform. Likewise, leveraging existing mental models and implementing innovations can help you enhance existing products and design new ones.

Now that you have a better understanding of the role of mental models in UI UX design; you can start creating structures that offer your users an intuitive experience in line with their expectations.

In today’s highly competitive buyer’s market, the success of every business depends on the customers. And, to get ahead of the competition you must be attentive to your customers.

Thanks for the submission.