Mental Models FTW
Start with research!
There seems to be a lot of research techniques out there, but most can be categorized into three groups: Preference, Evaluative, and Generative.
Mental models focus on using both evaluative and generative types of research, because they focus on design interactions, information architecture, and how well a solution works. Evaluative research involves techinques like usability testing, card sorting, and customer feedback. Generative research explores the mental enviroment in which things get done from a user standpoint, using techniques like interviews, ethnography, and mental models.
Mental models generated with both types of research help deliver an unambiguous experience that reduces conflict between design and user behaviour expectations.
Look for patterns
Once you have collected your data, you’ll start to notice patterns — turning them into tasks, and grouping these tasks together by affinity. The goal is to let the tasks find their own patterns.
Build your model
By now you have a basic mental model structure from all of the groupings from the previous exercise. All that is left is creating the diagram, so you can review it with stakelholders and other team members. Start building your model by creating towers and placing the created tasks within them. Now give those towers a name.
Create separate mental models for each of the audence types you came up with — then compare them. This will help determine which tasks have any commonalities with your audience segments. Now that we have the top part completed, you can now brainstorm features and solutions to these towers.
Look for opportunties to redefine, combine, or improve upon. Once you define these opportunities, place them underneath.
Analyze and Prototype
Look for gaps in the mental model — Remove towers if needed. By looking across towers and mental spaces, you might find the next best feature for your product. Now take this model and start testing new designs with your users.
PS. There’s a lot more that goes into Mental Models. For more a more in depth look, I highly recommend reading Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior, by Indi Young