Leveraging Mental Models in Product design.

Leveraging Mental Models in Product design.

As given by Nielsen Norman Group,

“A mental model is based on belief, not facts: It’s a model of what users know (or think they know) about a system such as your website.” 

In basic terms, it’s an explanation of how we (people) see the world. 

In a book titled “The design of everyday things”, Don Norman wrote that irrespective of how designers envision their products (i.e. the designers’ conceptual models), end users will always project their own mental models rooted in individual biases and worldviews onto their experiences of products.

That is, the belief or views users have formed from life’s experiences will always have a huge influence on how they interact with your product design. 

To therefore ensure maximum usability, leveraging your user’s mental model when designing your product does the magic. 

In this blog, we will explore mental models and by extension, behavioral economics, exposing you to secrets that influence product design at a holistic level and put you at an advantage. 

This is what we’ll be looking at, 

1. Functional Fixedness: Sticking to what works as supposed to be innovative.

2. Loss Aversion: A decision has to be framed as either gain or loss.

3. Anchoring:  Relying on the information initially given. 

 Are you ready? Let’s begin!

  1. Functional Fixedness: Sticking to what works as supposed to be innovative.

Innovations are cool and the right way to go only when they don’t tamper with the mental model of users. 

Functional fixedness is the inability to realize that a product or experience known to have a particular use may also be used in a novel way or to perform other functions. 

Innovation is stifled by what’s called The Curse of Knowledge, in which people become so familiar with something that they cannot unlearn its traditional properties to look at it from a fresh perspective. 

This method of cognition was called “fast thinking” or System 1 Thinking, as thoughts become so effortless that stereotypes are formed unconsciously with no room for creativity.

Why does this matter?

Functional fixedness strengthens as a truism over time and cements the old way as the right way. Once users have developed a mental model of what their experience should be while interacting with a particular type of product design, and this has worked perfectly, producing results over time, then you don’t have to tamper with it in the name of innovation. 

For example,


This shows, that sometimes, sticking to the basics does the trick, and doesn't make users confused.

It’s important in product design to recognize conventional inside-the-box decisions that adhere to “what has worked” rather than looking for creative opportunities for “a new normal”.

  1. Loss Aversion: A decision has to be framed as either gain or loss.

No one wants to lose. But more interestingly, people would rather avoid the loss of something than gain the equivalent. 

In behavioral psychology, loss aversion is the foundation of a Prospect Theory that people perceive the pain of losing to be twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining, so they take extra risks to avoid any potential loss.

Here’s a secret to be exploited during your product design process.

The loss aversion effect has a significant impact on product design and is thus taken into consideration by product designers while designing interfaces. 

Product Designers are tapping into the fear response, causing people to make snap decisions because they don’t want to feel like they’ve lost out.

Examples include discount offers, free trials, lucky draw ads, and immediate feedback on your product. 

The loss aversion effect can be used on your product:

  • When a decision has to be framed as either gain or loss.
  • When the aim is to motivate the user to continue on a product or task.
  • When the aim is to motivate the user to start on a product or task.

Now, how to apply the power of loss aversion to your product?

  • Create a free trial feature on your product or offer discounts: 

Users are more likely to engage in free trial periods than pay upfront. While some might not be willing to pay the market price up front, they will have no choice but to pay on the expiration of the free trial to avoid it being taken away.

Let’s take Netflix as an example. 

More specifically, their front page where it says “cancel at any time” and “join free for a month”.

How often have you finished that free trial and then just left with no choice but to pay for it?   

Part of this is down to the loss aversion bias because by canceling your account you’ll miss out on all the product (Netflix in this case) has to offer.

This tactic is used in most businesses and should definitely be exploited by you be it a B2B product design or a B2C product.

  • Giving Immediate feedback to user problems:

As established, the emotional value of the loss is larger than that of gains, and also builds up over time. To limit the pain experienced from a problem, and avoid users bouncing off your product, ensure to design products that give immediate feedback to possible user problems. 

If you’re designing experiences, be mindful of this bias, as it can help improve product engagement and conversion. This bias also makes people or other businesses more likely to stick with what they’ve got unless there is a good reason to change or switch.

  1. Anchoring: Relying on the information initially given. 

Anchoring Bias is a type of cognitive bias where people rely greatly on the information initially given to them. This initial information they receive is called the anchor.

We tend to rely heavily on the first piece of information given to us, even if the information may be completely irrelevant. In product design, anchoring operates similarly and helps with conversion optimization when options are presented with contrast in mind.

For example,

How does it influence product design?

  • Relaying the unique concept of your design at first glance.

The first thing we show our users are going to be anchored into their brains.

This is why you see many websites try to explain their purpose from the first sentence in their hero banner. This sentence is going to be the anchor for them and they’ll process the contents of the website accordingly.

To exploit this mental model, invest more time and resources to make sure your product's landing page or where users first come in contact, (while checking to see if your product is what they seek), is the best part of the product. 

The first impression you give them about your product matters a lot. You should give an anchor that immediately tells them your concept and highlights what makes you unique, as this is the base perception users will continuously have about your product for life.

The first salient feature emphasized for a product becomes a frame of reference for all subsequent selling points. It sets the stage and becomes inseparable from the product and more holistically, its brand. 

To wrap it up, 

These mental models are valuable only if they’re used. Leveraging these existing mental models as a foundation for creativity and innovation could enable product designers to optimize existing products as well as be well-equipped for their next big product design challenge.

Need help exploiting these mental models? You can always get across to professionals.

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