For example, in early 2016 Fiat Chrysler automobiles recall over 1 million vehicles due to a new shifter design, called the Rocker Switch Gearshift.
And what this shifter design does?
A user should press the button on it and then move back and forth (ratchets through the park, reverse, neutral) for shift through the gears in that way. But then the shifts are always returned back to the center position.
So, the only indicator of which gear it is, that driver had, was the letters illuminated by a light. But actually there was no positional feedback, so users had no indicators of which gear they were in.
What’s the problem?
Why did they recall? What happened when, people were getting out of their cars, thinking the shifter was in a park mode?
Yes, the cars drove off without them. This, of course, led to crashes, injuries and so on.
Chrysler’s official response to this was that gear selection is conveyed to the driver by multiple sets of indicator lights, not gear selector position, and unless due care is taken, drivers may draw erroneous conclusions about the status of their vehicles.
What a fancy way of saying to the drivers “Error is your fault. It’s not our fault that we designed this badly!”.
And this is an example of a classic bad design.
Of course, it’s hard, when you make something, you think really cool, letting yourself put it in front of people and then they just don’t get it at all. It’s kind of sting.
But If you’re making something and the people, you’re making it for, don’t understand how it works — that’s not their fault. This’s a common mistake, that a lot of designers make.
Chrysler’s fix was to implement additional warnings and to encourage people to read their instruction manual for their car.
Can this fix the problem? Of course not!
Because the problem is not that people aren’t reading their owner’s manuals, the problem is that people are accustomed to positional feedback when changing gears — the feedback that doesn’t require the user to look at the gear all the time, to see which position is in, and which gear it is.
This is a well-established convention, that’s been around for more than 50 years. This has been around for so long. It’s edged into the public consciousness.
It’s impossible just to change the convention like this, and expect everything will be all right, because people have these sets of experiences built up, and they take those experience into this new thing that you’re making. And that’s how they expect it to work based on their previous expectations.
And that’s what a mental model is — an internal representation of an external reality, based on learning and experience.
This is sort of like a cognitive shorthand, which is just a fancy way of saying that a mental model based on what one experiences in its life, how it expects things to work in certain ways.
And this is always not consciously mechanism. Most of the time people not consciously comparing their mental model with the real world.
If the way something works lines with users expectation they will understand how to use it, and if it doesn’t they will struggle.
A mental model is how you think something will work, based on your learning and experience.
When it comes to mental models, there are two things to differentiate. First is a system model and second — interaction model.
The system model is how something works, and the interaction model is how to interact with it, how to use it.
So engineers, the build products, usually have strong system models. They understand how it works very well, but they typically have weak interaction models. That means, they know how an engine and a drivetrain works, but not how people drive their cars, while the average person will know how to drive their car, but not how the engine connects to the drivetrain and the gears work.
The average person prefers being comfortable over knowledgeable, and that’s something that really hard for engineers to understand.
It’s the job of the designer to come in and fill that gap between systems and interact between users and builders. That is why designers need to have strong system models and strong interaction models. They’re sort of translators and that is the way why, in my opinion, it’s a good idea for the designer to know how to code.
The designer doesn’t need to do it every day, it is probably never going to be as good at it as engineers are, but the designer should at least understand how one project coded from start to finish.
So then you as a designer could understand why an engineer sometimes gets kind of frustrated when you make some suggestion to him of how to change something. Because the thing that took designer ten minutes to change in the sketch can take developers eight hours to change in code.
It can only help if you have that understanding of the system. The more understanding you have, the more experience you acquire.
So an example with the car is one with a good system model because it does work, but bad interaction model (a model of how the user thinks something will work based on learning and experience).
The way you can think about it is — if you’re creating something unfamiliar base it in the familiar first.
For example, the original iPhone/iPad notes app. There’s no reason why there has to be simulated leather or three torn off pages at the top. There are no pages on the screen. But when the iPad came out it was such a completely new paradigm of using much stuff.
Designers should shift people that we had to take an analogy from the real world and transfer it over to this digital world
The iPad approximately has the form factor of the notebook, it has about that shape and then if you to compare real notebook pages with iPad one, your brain makes the connection “ this is a note-taking app”.
Same thing with the address book. There’s no reason that there need to be simulated pages in the address book, there’s no point for that. Except that it helps people make the connection from their physical address book that they’ve been using for many many years to this new digital address books.
In the familiar metaphor is the desktop. When computers with graphical user interface first came out it was totally new. Nothing like that had ever existed before, so there was a real challenge to explain to people how to use this. The analogy, that they came up with, really helped.
Metaphor served us well for a long time. There’s some debate in the industry now about whether it still makes sense to do it that way. But it still serves its purpose of helping people make the cognitive leap.
Of course, you know an even more classic example of mental models — the first car. What did it look like? It looked like a carriage without a horse. Because if someone has rolled in with a brand new s-class, that would have just broke the frame of understanding.
So mental models can evolve over time like once you’ve done some work to take people into a new paradigm. Once people have understood that this is a screen and they can tap something and something happens, then evolve that paradigm, because you don’t need the leather anymore, you don’t need the pages. Actually, Apple did it when it switched from skeuomorphism.
It happens when there is a sufficient level of knowledge in the public consciousness, and that’s how we all get the flat design.
For the last couple of years, the knowledge base of the general population has gotten to a point now, where people just know that they can interact with certain things on a screen, so they don’t need to look like physical objects anymore.
And after a while, those metaphors actually start holding you back because even looks like a book it is still not a book.
Some of those physical metaphors actually not take advantage of some benefits that a digital interface brings.
But first, you need to build the knowledge.
Speaking of the gear shift example, back in the day like when cars originally made the gear shift was literally connected to the drivetrain and you shifted the gear manually. But these days everything is done with electronics and sensors. Before the gear shift to take up all that space in the middle of the car but today this space can be just a nice bench or some more storage. Today there is no need to take a big place for the gear shift.
Of course, because that mental model is so strong most people still do it the old way. To help them, manufacturers change a little the mechanism but everything else is left the same or the same. This is done so that people can more easily learn and adapt.
Therefore, if you want to change the paradigm you need to start with its individual parts.
A great example of focusing on goals versus just the steps of doing something.
That brings us to the idea that you won’t always be in a situation, where you’re creating an entirely new paradigm.
Very rarely but when you are in that position — you got to make sure that you teach people well and you got to make sure that it’s much better they’re used to.
A gear shift that looks just like a regular gear shift but doesn’t move positions that’s not much better.
A mental model is always based on an individual’s experiences so if somebody has never seen a gear shift before he is not going to know how to interact with it. And the way you go finding out about this stuff is research.
As you’re going understanding who these people, that you’re trying to solve problems for, you’ll automatically uncover their expectations and their mental models of things.
The cornerstone of every effective design is followed by research.
Thus, the understanding and research of mental models is very important for the designer, without this, it is not possible to create new and improve existing products.
There are thousands of known mental models, but the best ones apply broadly to life and are useful in a wide range of situations. Of all the mental models humankind has generated throughout history, there are just a few dozen that you need to master to have a firm grasp of how the world works. To quote Charlie Munger, “80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.”
You don’t need to master every detail of every subject to become a world-class thinker. Many of the most important mental models are the big ideas from disciplines like biology, chemistry, physics, economics, mathematics, psychology, philosophy. Each field has a few mental models that form the backbone of the topic.