Although the concept of mental models in user experience is often associated to the work done by Indi Young (who approaches them as a way to explore the way users navigate through systems and products), both Munger’s and Young’s avenues of mental models are worth exploring by designers who want to improve their day-to-day decisions while exercising our profession.
The following 3 models are focused on Munger’s approach, due to the potential extrapolation we can do of them to our field.
1 . The Map is not the Territory
There are two research findings of how the human mind works that have stood the test of time.
The first one is the brain as a pattern-recognition machine: the brain has evolved to always figure out meaning while experiencing the world, as well as jumping directly to conclusions.
The second one is the brain as an optimization machine: most of the time we’re operating through an automatic system (what Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman refers as System 1) which makes us take shortcuts in order to avoid cognitive overload and decision fatigue.
Yuval Noah Harari summarizes these two human mind conditions in his book 21 lessons from the 21st Century:
“Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers or equations […] The simpler the story, the better”
Problems arise when we are no longer able to differentiate the stories we tell ourselves and reality. Maybe because the story that we ingrained in our cortex was so compelling, that we just stopped looking for new answers. As Kahneman pointed out, we are blind to our biases, and we are blind to our blindness.
The Map is not the Territory is a good reminder of the potential risks we might face if we are not consciously aware of the interpretations and meaning we attribute to the world as we experience it.
As a UX Designer, I have seen how other designers focus too much on the tools and processes within their day-to-day work, that somewhere along the way they stop asking themselves the real purpose of using the artifacts.
– Designer: A new project, great! Let me schedule a Proto-Persona workshop. Being user-centered is the most important thing.
– Project Manager: On that note, I think it won’t be necessary as our main stakeholder will be the only user.
– Designer: Great. Make sure to invite her to the meeting. Let’s hurry up, because I need to work on the journey map later, some job stories, then wireframes/mockups, and finally the prototype. My job is so hard and unpredictable, I know.”
The next mental model can be a good starting point to avoid falling into the trap of the map not being the territory.
2. A Beginner’s Mind
Heuristics, defined as rules of thumb based on previous knowledge, are the cornerstone of mental models. However, sometimes the answer we are looking for requires us to let go of what we we already know, in order for new knowledge to get in.
During a High Resolution podcast episode , IDEO co-founder Tom Kelley elaborates on a concept he labels Vujà-dé (as opposed to Déjà-vu), referring to the act of reframing a familiar situation into a new one by looking at it with fresh, new eyes, thus revealing information not noticed before.
A beginner’s mind is the mental model to adopt any situation as if it were the first time you experience it, in order to uncover blindspots that otherwise would be hard to pinpoint.
Although putting a beginner’s mind into practice might be harder than expected (it is actually more difficult to unlearn than to learn), Socratic Questioning is a great starting point to apply this heuristic in a systematic way. It is eloquently explained by Shane Parrish on his blog Farnam Street:
A beginner’s mind goes beyond asking why 5 times, as this line of thinking only provides a single-dimensional direction of causes, which might not lead to the best result. Other methods such as Fishbone analysis and Root Cause analysis might be more effective.
3. Thinking in Systems
As technology evolves, our capacity to build more complex products also increases. More complex products derive in more moving parts, and when designers do not take into account all those moving parts and how they interact together, inconsistencies happen. Clutter is presented, and the end result is what Jared Spool defines as Experience Rot, a product full of non-sense features, confusing behaviors, and a frustrating experience.
In order to avoid this scenario, designers should be literate in systems thinking and permeate this mindset into their teams.
Russell Ackoff, pioneer in the subject, illustrates the importance of systems thinking:
The performance of a system depends of how the parts fit, not how they act when taken separately.
As designers, we tend to assess our work by how proficient we are in the skills and abilities we have agreed as a community to grow. Information Architecture, Visual Design, Usability, are some examples. However, it can be naive to think that those disciplines will be enough to tackle down any problem we face in our career.
Systems thinking is our lighthouse when navigating through complex problems, as it forces us to think beyond our disciplines. As Ackoff points out:
[…] Disciplines do not constitute different parts of reality; they are different aspects of reality, different points of view. Any part of reality can be viewed from any of these aspects. The whole can be understood only by viewing it from all the perspectives simultaneously.
Adopting a systems thinking mindset means considering all the possible moving parts from the very beginning, up until the end of a project. To decipher those moving parts you might need to get out of your circle of competence, and embrace problems as a holistic entity, not as a disciplinary one.
If you’re interested in leveraging your team to solve wicked problems in a systems-thinking way, I recently wrote about whiteboard exercises as a means to work in a trans-disciplinary way.
Mental models are not a replacement for evidence-based design or research; their biggest potential lies in how they help us navigate the world by creating meaningful and repeatable abstractions, so we can make better choices without reaching decision fatigue. We should evaluate mental models by how useful they are, not by how right they are.