Of mental models and system images



 Each one of us approaches a system with a definite goal in mind. Some approach as ‘designers’, some as ‘consumers’, while some of us as ‘developers’. Each one of us does so with a certain amount of assumptions. Consumers have their own beliefs; designers have their own hypothesis while developers have their own preoccupied thoughts about a system they’ve been working on for a great deal of time. How does it affect all of us, find it out!

 Designers usually have a twisted idea of who a consumer is and his needs. He expects them to follow a certain use case; a definitive pattern. The designer erects a ‘mental model’ of a consumer, which he refers to throughout the development cycle of the system, and beyond.

 On the other hand, consumers paint an ‘image’ of a system and how they ‘expect’ it to work. At times they start taking things for granted. They start to assume that the systems are infallible, intelligent entities and they discount most of the things which influence these. For them, the system is always alive and ticking. Any thing which runs counter to the image they have of the system is met with defiant resistance. No wonder, at times, we have much of banged PC monitors and nearly broken keyboards. Images become realities!

 When ‘mental models’ clash with ‘system images’, we have an explosion of bugs and system flaws. A root cause analysis of a major bug in a system will dig down to any one, or both of these. Lots of assumptions are considered; some with great degree of devotion, so much so that, they start looking like facts.

 Assumptions are the key

 Assumptions can be varied in each of the case, and these very assumptions can cause undesired Usability flaws. Until the designers and the developers come down to the level of the consumers with respect to the approach of the system, I am afraid; we shall see more of those classical Usability flaws popping up all the time. The result: A complicated system which requires hours of painful learning.

 Ironically, not many of those classical Usability flaws are deemed to be classified as bugs, rather passed on unnoticed with nothing more than a raised eyebrow or a subdued murmur by the one who uses it. Those are the very flaws which gives a thumbs-down to an application or an interface in terms of ease of use. We may have the best application on Earth but if it can’t ride with the intuitions of a consumer, it seems to have failed. There is a call to make every application as intuitive as possible and one of the approaches to do so is to design ground up.


 The consumers are the people whom we must approach and ask them to contribute their wish list for an application. They like to do a task in a way they love to do and not the way the ‘technologists’ want them to do. They seek freedom while operating a system but also need guides in a discreet fashion. The technologist must make good use of constraints to help the consumers navigate to their destination, yet make them feel that they are still free. Of course there are clear tradeoffs in this approach, which needs to be considered, but yet again, it is the consumer whom we must get back to. In a way, we are pegged to consumer’s demands and needs.

 A system is designed to serve the consumer, and hence a great degree of end-user customization needs to be provided as optional features, albeit hidden to a certain degree. The system, in a way must be extensible. Discoveries are great as these add to the joy of the consumer but these discoveries must not be for essential features, rather for the optional features, which can easily distract a consumer if placed right on the platter in full view.

 Consumer yearns for improved features and ease of use. To which technologists reply with a system, which is sophisticated, feature-rich, yet, does not go down well with the consumer. They get a white elephant. Unfortunately, the consumer’s overwhelming response to his call indeed overwhelms his response! The result: Islands of great tools but nowhere to reach them!

 The responsibility

 Without any grain of hesitation, I suggest, neither designer, nor developers can be perfect in their scheme of things. No wonder we have innumerable updates and bug fixes as the order of the day in the software arena. Yet, they have a very responsible role to play in this regard. We are witnessing convergence of technologies and the stakes are high. Too much is being expected of the ‘technologists’, yet the very same technology which must be used should be shrouded with simplicity. There are needs for tools as simple as a knife with varied uses and with no learning curves; no user manuals, no indicators.

 The only guide for the consumer to use the system must be his intuition and then he should be able to do his job well.


3 thoughts on “Of mental models and system images

  1. Extremely thoughtful, seems like concluding extract of a deep analysis done during your career span; my friend. Really appreciate these thoughts. Would love to read more from you 🙂

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