By Liraz Margalit, PhD, Web Psychologist

When designing your customer-facing website, it may be tempting to think outside the box and create a unique and innovative online experience. But this may actually be the least effective and most alienating approach you could take. The reason? Mental models.

The human mind creates images to represent different aspects of the world around us. These stored representations help us to draw conclusions and understand complex ideas. They affect what we notice in complicated situations, help shape our actions and behaviour, and define how we handle and solve problems.

These concepts are integrated into mental models that organize the way we perceive the world. A mental model represents the thought process of how something works. We have a mental model for every aspect of our life: how to behave in a job interview, the ‘format’ of a first date, what a hotel vacation feels like, etc.

Mental models are important because they help us process new information by providing an organized structure for it. For example, when we go to a new restaurant, we know exactly what to expect — sitting at a table, ordering from a menu, waiting for the server to bring food — even if it is our first visit.

When we visit a website, we expect the login area to consist of two labelled boxes of equal size in close proximity one to another. We expect the first box to be for the user name and the second for the password. If this expectation is not met, we may find it difficult to log in properly.

Online familiarity

Without realizing it, we have developed a rich conceptualization of how things work in the online world. In other words, we’ve developed online mental models. We have a mental model of what a homepage should look like, where the ‘Contact us’ link is located, and what a clickable button looks like. If users from different countries are asked to close their eyes and describe an ecommerce site, news site or singles’ dating site, chances are they will agree on the features of each type.

What this means is that if you are planning to launch a new retail site, for example, you must keep in mind that your potential customers will subconsciously compare it to that category’s prototype — eBay or Amazon. Because we retrieve and process information that is prototypical of a category faster than that which is less prototypical, the greater the similarity between your site and these market leaders, the more comfortable — and less likely to bounce — your customers will be.

A key distinction in perception is that between top-down and bottom-up processes. The first are driven by a person’s knowledge and expectations, while the latter rely solely on new input.

If we have created an online mental model, a top-down process is automatically activated as we interact in the online world. It is a cognitive process that flows down to a lower level of function. Guided by prior knowledge, expectations are created so that little input is needed for recognition. In a top-down process, users will feel familiar and comfortable with a new web site after only a brief exposure, because they have general expectations about where to find certain pieces of information even before typing in the URL.

On the other hand, if we are encountering a new structure that cannot be interpreted using our existing model, the senses must provide information to the brain. An example might be the first time we are exposed to a touchscreen on a smartphone or tablet. This bottom-up process requires much more effort on our parts — attention and time that we are not necessarily willing to give.

Our Stubborn Brains

Once created, mental models have a tendency to remain unchanged, even in the face of contradictory information. Our mental models affect the way we accept or reject new conceptual models. Our brain likes to identify familiar patterns around us. We are wired to search for those patterns that led to successful interactions in the past (falling in love, completing a successful negotiation, gambling, investing, etc.). The more familiar we are with something, the less cognitive effort we must invest in finding the correct reaction.

If website visitors cannot rely on their previous experience when visiting your site, they will not consider it innovative. Rather, they will wonder why things are not where they are supposed to be. If you want people to feel good about interacting with your products or brand, you have to ensure that the surface elements match their online mental models so they can be quickly and accurately interpreted.

Businesses must design interactive experiences that take into consideration the limitations of the human cognitive system. Designing web pages according to users’ mental models accelerates orientation, enhances memorability of web-object locations and even affects user interactions.

About the Author
Liraz Margalit is a web psychologist working for Clicktale, the company that converts behaviour into business.


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