Mental models

Introductory articles

  • Mental models
    Mental models are representations of reality that people use to understand specific phenomena. Norman (in Gentner and Stevens, 1983) describes them as follows: "In interacting with the environment, with others, and with the artifacts of technology, people form internal, mental models of themselves and of the things with which they are interacting. These models provide predictive and explanatory power for understanding the interaction."

  • Mental models: a gentle guide for outsiders
    Mental models are psychological representations of real, hypothetical, or imaginary situations. They were first postulated by the Scottish psychologist Kenneth Craik (1943), who wrote that the mind constructs "small-scale models" of reality that it uses to anticipate events, to reason, and to underlie explanation. Like pictures in Wittgenstein’s (1922) "picture" theory of the meaning of language, mental models have a structure that corresponds to the structure of what they represent. They are accordingly akin to architects’ models of buildings, to molecular biologists’ models of complex molecules, and to physicists’ diagrams of particle interactions. Since Craik’s original insight, cognitive scientists have argued that the mind constructs mental models as a result of perception, imagination and knowledge, and the comprehension of discourse. They study how children develop such models, how to design artifacts and computer systems for which it is easy to acquire a model, how a model of one domain may serve as analogy for another domain, and how models engender thoughts, inferences, and feelings.

  • Mental models and usability
    Mental models have been studied by cognitive scientists as part of efforts to understand how humans know, perceive, make decisions, and construct behavior in a variety of environments. The relatively new field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) has adopted and adapted these concepts to further the study in its main area of concern (usability). This document will describe mental models and usability. It will then discuss the applications and limitations of mental models as they help improve software usability. The concluding section will describe a study developed and conducted by the authors. This study suggests some potential areas for further research that could help both cognitive scientists and HCI practitioners make progress in understanding mental models.

Discussion articles

  • Information architecture: web page mental maps emerge
    When people come to your website they have a mental map of how their 'ideal' webpage should be. They expect to see certain things in certain places. They expect to read certain killer words in your classification and content. The more you meet their mental map, the more successful your website will be.

  • Poor code quality contaminates mental models
    Software bugs and system crashes result in huge productivity losses and undermine users' ability to form good models of how computers work. Website designers can help improve user confidence by prioritizing quality and robustness over features and the latest technology.

  • User mental models of persistence in Rich Internet Applications (RIAs)
    How Rich Internet Applications will behave is up for grabs. This issue has not arisen until now because the early adopters of Flash-based UIs were either game developers (with no user data to save) or transactional sites like brokerages or e-commerce sites (where the data is sent to be saved at a particular time, when the user explicitly initiates a transaction). But now RIAs that allow users to "work on their data" are starting to emerge, raising the question of what their model for saving user data will be.

  • What's your idea of a mental model?
    As usability and design professionals, we often use the term "mental model" loosely. Part of the problem is that there isn’t a clear English definition, though there are several serviceable academic ones.

Research articles

  • Mental models in HCI: a review of the literature
    Chapter 4 of a PhD thesis titled Eliciting and Describing Users' Models of Computer Systems establishes the state of existing knowledge about mental models in HCI by providing a summary and critical review of published theoretical and empirical research work on this topic to date.

  • Structuring information with mental models: a tour of Boston
    We present a new systematic method of structuring information using mental models. This method can be used both to evaluate the efficiency of an information structure and to build user-centered information structures. In this paper we present the method using Boston tourist attractions as an example domain. We describe several interfaces that take advantage of our mental models with an activation spreading network. Multidimensional scaling and trajectory mapping are used to build our mental models. Because of the robustness of the technique, it is easy to compare individual difference in mental models and to customise interfaces for individual models.


  • Interview with Donald Norman on mental models
    Don Norman's goal is to help companies make products that appeal to the emotions as well as to reason. Norman is co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, an executive consulting firm that helps companies produce human-centered products and services. He serves on numerous boards and advisory committees for companies and education. He is Prof. of Computer Science and Psychology at Northwestern University and former Vice President of Apple Computer's Advanced Technology Group. Norman is the author of The Design of Everyday Things, Things That Make Us Smart and The Invisible Computer. His newest book Emotional Design emphasises the role of emotions in product design.


  • From construct to structure: information architecture from mental models
    In practicing user-centered design, there are few tools for making the leap from user research into the design process. Adaptive Path offers a workshop presenting a method wherein a visual model of users' tasks leads directly to the derivation of an information architecture. The workshop itself is not online, but the workshop materials can be downloaded.

Resource collections

  • Mental models website
    Mental models are representations in the mind of real or imaginary situations. Scientists sometimes use the term "mental model" as a synonym for "mental representation", but it has a narrower referent in the case of the theory of thinking and reasoning. The mental model theory of thinking and reasoning is the focus of this website.