Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior
Indi Young
Publication Date
February 2008
Rosenfeld Media
Photo Credit
Rosenfeld Media
Based on interviews, mental model diagrams give you a deep understanding of people's motivations and thought-processes, creating empathy for the people whom you support with your services.

To create a mental model diagram, you talk to people about what they do, look for patterns, and organize the patterns into a model of how people make decisions, think things through, and react to situations. This forms the top half of the diagram, which is really the "mental model" part.

In the bottom half of the diagram, you align your offerings — documents, services, processes, and information — with the elements above. This makes it easy to see where your offering supports people's needs, where it needs improvement, and where there are opportunities for innovation

Models can be relatively simple or incredibly complex, depending on the breadth of the design problems you're trying to solve. Either way, they're a powerful tool.

A few examples of organizations and what they used the models for: Google — to design the Analytics app for monitoring blog traffic Paypal — to help define their services in line with what customers understand McDonald's — to improve their drive-through menu kiosk and services Dow Corning — to bring filtered, web-based materials recommendations online The United Nations — for ReliefWeb and PreventionWeb, two disaster response and preparedness social applications Sybase — to improve support of their software development community Agilent — to better organize employee resources


"Indi Young's mental models are the perfect way for your team to integrate your user's perspective into your design. Indi has written a comprehensive guide for anyone who wants to make use of this power design technique. I'll be giving this book out to all of our important clients and insisting they make it part of their process." Jared Spool, CEO & Founding Principal, User Interface Engineering

"Developed over the course of more than ten years, Indi Young's common sense approach focuses on user behavior, diagrammatic representations, and the participation of all stakeholders in collaborative discovery. It is a book that designers and students, alike, will find useful." Richard Buchanan, Professor of Design, School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University

"Indi Young's new book is a welcome addition, covering an aspect of the design process that is extremely important but often neglected. The book is chock-full of practical advice derived from real-world development projects, but doesn't lose sight of the broad conceptual underpinnings." Ray Valdes, Research Director, Web Services, Gartner Inc.

"Indi Young gives great insight into the nuts and bolts of understanding, capturing and visualizing user needs. Her "how to" instructions provide clear guidance for teams wishing to undertake a serious effort to architect, design and develop products with the user in mind." Sara L. Beckman, Haas School of Business, University of California Berkeley

Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior
Filed under: design strategy, experience strategy.
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  1. What and Why? The Advantages of a Mental Model
  2. When? Using Mental Models with Your Other Work
  3. Who? Mental Model Team Participants
  4. Define Task-Based Audience Segments
  5. Specify Recruiting Details
  6. Set Scope for the Interviews
  7. Interview Participants
  8. Analyze the Transcripts
  9. Look for Patterns
  10. Create the Mental Model
  11. Adjust the Audience Segments
  12. Alignment and Gap Analysis
  13. Structure Derivation