Mental Models

By Mark Nuyens
4 min. read🎨 Software Design

The user experience of digital technologies has vast potential to be enhanced through intuitive interface design, specifically by looking at the user's mental model. By aligning a product’s use of language and visual metaphors with how users naturally think, good user experiences can become great ones. Some companies may struggle in this regard if they have not identified any real issues in the user experience, mistakenly believing their current solutions are adequate.

While most users tolerate imperfect experiences for lack of better options or time to complain, everyone has encountered digital interfaces that felt somehow “off.” We are left making assumptions to fill in gaps, speculating about the system’s inner workings to achieve our goals. Tech-savvy critics are quick to point out these flaws, yet for the average user, a system’s technical details are simply irrelevant. Excellent user experience relies on interfaces that map to users’ mental models of how something should work.

Designers can be reluctant to rename something as simple as a “Back” button to clarify its purpose, like “Change Shipping Address.” Yet labelling is a straightforward first step toward aligning the interface with the user’s perspective. Icons and emoji are other simple ways to forge intuitive connections without disrupting existing layouts. More radically, designers could ask users how they would describe each step if starting from scratch, then create interfaces reflecting those mental models.

Metaphors provide another method for mapping interfaces to users’ thinking. Referring to physical objects, for example, gives people a familiar context for navigating digital tools. While interfaces have evolved toward minimalism, ostensibly for efficiency, this move away from visual metaphors was more likely driven by developers’ and designers’ interests than users’. Thoughtful use of visual metaphors doesn't have to be considered "overkill” when done right.

An ideal interface mirrors how users would design the experience if they could draw it themselves. Consider sending a digital birthday card: rather than clicking through screens to enter address details in forms, many would probably prefer writing on an envelope. Letting users enter an address on a virtual envelope makes the process more engaging, memorable, and human. This is just an example but it demonstrates how we often translate physical activities to digital ones.

In my opinion, most digital interfaces could be better attuned to how users expect to interact with them. Instead of designing first and testing later, designers should start by asking users what they want. Technology already enables highly fluid web and mobile apps; used well, it could yield interactions that feel natural rather than like “glorified Word documents.” Designers have an ethical responsibility to understand the user, and only by doing so can they achieve excellence.

With vision and empathy, technology companies can craft digital experiences that feel seamless, intuitive, and even joyful. By aligning interfaces with users’ own mental models, designers can turn tools into natural extensions of human capabilities. The companies that recognize this opportunity and make the effort to connect with users in this deeper way are the ones that will shape the future of digital experiences.

Thank you for reading!