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Psychology of Visualization Post 2.1- Cognizance of Visual Communication: Understanding without a manual

Post 2.1- Cognizanceof Visual Communication: Understanding without a manual

Imagine that you’ve never seen an iPad, but I’ve just handed one to you and told you that you can read books on it. Before you turn on the iPad, before you use it, you have a model in your head of what reading a book on the iPad will be like. You have assumptions about what the book will look like on the screen, what things you will be able to do, and how you will do them—things like turning a page, or using a bookmark. You have a “mental model” of reading a book on the iPad, even if you’ve never done it before.

Kids have this same ability but when in early childhood these mental models are still developing. Check this video out. A child, a teenager, an adult, and the elderly all are at different stages of life with different life-learned mental models. This is a perfect example where keeping your audience in mind is essential.  

If you’ve used an iPad before, your mental model of reading a book on an iPad will be different than that of someone who has never used one, or doesn’t even know what an iPad is. If you’ve been using a Kindle for the past year, then your mental model will be different from someone who has never read a book electronically. And once you get the iPad and read a couple of books on it, whichever mental model you had in your head before will start to change and adjust to reflect your experience.

What is a mental model? – The term mental model has been around for at least the last 25 years. One of my favorite definitions is from Susan Carey’s 1986 journal article, “Cognitive science and science education”, which says:

“A mental model represents a person’s thought process for how something works (i.e., a person’s understanding of the surrounding world). Mental models are based on incomplete facts, past experiences, and even intuitive perceptions. They help shape actions and behavior, influence what people pay attention to in complicated situations, and define how people approach and solve problems.”

Users create mental models very quickly — often before they even use a website or a product. Users’ mental models come from their prior experience with similar sites or products, assumptions they have, things they’ve heard others say, and also from their direct experience with the product or device. Mental models are subject to change.

Mental models vs. conceptual models – In order to understand why mental models are so important for visual interaction design, you have to also understand what a conceptual model is and how it is different from a mental model.

A mental model is the representation that a person has in their minds about the visual they are interacting with.

A conceptual model is the actual visual that is given to the person through the design and interface of the visual.

Going back to the iPad ebook example, you have a mental model about what reading a book will be like in the iPad, how it will work, what you can do with it. But when you sit down with the iPad, the “system” (the iPad) will display what the conceptual model of the book app actually is. There will be screens, and buttons, and things that happen. The actual interface is the conceptual model. Someone designed an interface and that interface is communicating to you the conceptual model of the visual interaction.

Why care about this mental model/conceptual model idea? –Here’s why you should care: If there is a mismatch, between the person’s mental model and the product’s conceptual model, then the visual will be hard understand, could be misinterpreted, or believe to be wrong and therefore not accepted. How do mismatches occur? Here are some examples:

  • Do not assume! Do some research into your audience and stay in-tune with their actual and possible mental models.
  • Do not design for one “persona” or type of audience.
  • Design for the programmers. If the only people whose mental model fits the visual communication you are going for are the programmers who created it, and if the audience is not the programmers, then you are in trouble.

What if the mental models the users have won’t work?— What if it’s a brand new concept and you don’t want to match the current mental model? – What about the idea that people who have only read real, physical books will not have an accurate mental model of reading books on the iPad? Or the case of the first ever Mac? I remember when I started school I was instructed to click on the “bouncing” icon at the bottom of my Mac screen because it wasn’t the typical PC mental model I was used to. In this case you know that people will not have an accurate mental model that fits. You will need to change their mental model. The best way to change a mental model is through training. You can use a short training or explaining to change the mental model before the visual is introduced.

The Best Designers – a) understand the mental models of the intended audience (with task analysis, observations, interviews, etc), and  b) design a conceptual model to fit the audience’s mental model, or a design a new one and know how to get us to understand it. Ok so a manual, which was discouraged in the title of this post, but hey, if you want to be innovative you have to go out on a limb.

Take Aways:

  • People always have a mental model, and it often doesn’t match what the conceptual model that someone designed (or forgot to design!).
  • The secret to designing an intuitive and helpful communication experience is making sure that the conceptual model of the visual matches, as much as possible, the mental models of your audience.
  • If you have a brand new visual, going out on a limb so to speak,  that you know will not match anyone’s mental model then you will have to provide explanations to prepare the person to create a new mental model.
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