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Frequently Asked Questions

These common questions about mental models and their short answers are taken from Indi Young’s book Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior. You can find longer answers to each in your copy of the book, either printed or digital version.

  1. What is a mental model?
    The top part of the model is a visual depiction of the behavior of a particular audience, faithfully representing root motivations. The bottom part of the model shows various ways of supporting matching behaviors. Where support and behavior are aligned, you have a solution. Where a behavior is not supported, you have an opportunity to explore further.
    See page 2 for more information.
  2. What if I don’t have a big budget?
    If your organization already conducts usability tests with some regularity, piggyback short interviews on top of each session. Ask the participant to stay with you for an hour, and spend half the time on the usability testand half on conducting a non-leading interview.
    See page 57.
  3. What do you mean by “task?”
    The word “task” is used loosely. When I use the word “task,” it means actions, thoughts, feelings, and motivations—everything that comes up when a person accomplishes something, sets something in motion, or achieves a certain state.
    See page 207.
  4. What are task-based audience segments?
    Task-based audience segments are, quite simply, groups of people who do similar things. While personality types do touch upon behavior, generative research for building mental models requires that you select from groups of people who want to get different things done. Because you will want to tailor your end solutions to fit each audience exactly, grouping audiences by differences in behavior is important. You want to end up with solutions that match behaviors and philosophies closely rather than with one solution that fits several audiences loosely. Figure out what people want to accomplish, look for differences, and group accordingly.
    See page 74.
  5. How do I uncover the root task?
    During analysis, you are required to interpret a little. This is the “art” to the process. You will find it easier if you ask yourself, “What is this person really trying to do?” The idea is to simplify to the “root” task.
    See pages 211 and 218.
  6. What do you mean by a content map’s “content”?
    Let me assure you that the name “content” does not limit your map to text documents.Your content map should include all the ways you serve people, including things like monthly account statements or yearly awards banquets, registration for training courses, or a mortgage calculator.
    See page 354.
  7. Does a content map show every detail of my solution?
    It includes all functionality that exists or is intended for your solution.
    See page 354.
  8. How can analyzing gaps in a mental model show me innovative ideas?
    The first thing to look at is the obvious gaps where there is an absence of content items. Your hope is that you can find a gap that you can fill easily. Then look for scarcity of content items. Think about where you can flesh out things a bit. Look for opportunities to redefine, combine, or augment existing content.
    See page 377.
  9. How can mental models help me make sense of all my web properties?
    Each one of your web properties is a building on your internet campus. Each property has its own unique navigation that represents the mental model of the people populating it.
    See page 324.

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