May 7, 2018

Mental models and synesthesia

Using synesthesia to show the importance of conceptual and mental models in UX

“A conceptual model is an explanation, usually highly simplified, of how something works. It doesn’t have to be complete or even accurate as long as it is useful.”

– Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

When someone opens an app, visits a website, or uses a product, they rely on a preconceived model to help predict the consequences of their actions. Different people may have different models for the same product or system. These conceptual models in people’s minds (hence the term “mental models”) represent their unique understanding of how something works.

For this exploration, allow me to demonstrate the importance of mental models using my own understanding of time.

Time-Space Synesthesia

In short, synesthesia can be described as the mixing of two senses, where the stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to an involuntary experience in a second sensory pathway. There are many different types of synesthesia (possibly 60–80), which I won’t go into detail here.

The type I have is called time-space (or spatial-sequence) synesthesia. In this flavor, units of time (days, months, years) occupy specific locations in space. Throughout life, whenever I think about anything time-related, I reference a specific model in my mind’s eye. It’s my personal interpretation of how time works.

Two of my many time-based synesthetic maps: one for the week (left) and year (right).

Time can be a difficult concept to understand, and these innate mental models help define my relationship with it. They’ve allowed me to visualize the current, remember the past, and plan for the future.

Complementing Mental Models

A user’s mental model of a product or system is often predisposed and therefore out of the designer’s control. Because of this, the success of a product or system is dependent on how well it is designed to compliment this understanding. Since the user cannot talk to the designer, they must rely on the interface itself to communicate the appropriate conceptual model.

Let’s explore how my mental model of time fits with a couple of product conceptual models. Because I view time plotted in a specific spatial arrangement, I am attracted to products with conceptual models that match.

For example, I tend to prefer analog watches to digital, as they display increments of time occupying physical space. The various clock hands show the current time relative to the past and future, contrasting to the literal numeric representation of hour and minute digits. Therefore, the conceptual model of analog watches and clocks fits my mental model of time, resulting in an understandable, predictable, and enjoyable experience.

An example of a model disconnect is my aversion to what some digital calendars call “schedule view”. In Google Calendar’s mobile app, for instance, the default view shows days of the week stacked continuously in an infinite scrolling page. This conceptual model conflicts with my mental model of weekdays being side-by-side in a predictable cycle.

The designers of this layout probably wanted to maximize the limited mobile screen width, which makes sense. However, it doesn’t quite compliment my mental model of how weekdays work. The designers seemed to anticipate this and provided alternate “week” and “month” views but these are somewhat difficult to view on such a small screen. Perhaps this is why I prefer to do my scheduling on desktop, where the additional screen space allows for the side-by-side display that fits my understanding.

In reality, a product cannot correspond to every user’s mental model as the variety could represent a wide range. The best any designer can do is to create products that match the mental models most users will likely have. Or, in the case of Google Calendar, enable the design to cater to different understandings.

Using Mental Models to Guide Design

Design is about empathizing with your users to enable them to accomplish their goals. No matter how amazing the product, if people can’t use it, it’s doomed to fail. Its success depends on the designer’s ability to account for the preconceived mental models of their users in order to make the product understandable and usable. Any gap between our mental model and that of the user will result in frustration and disappointment.

Among a varied user base, there could be thousands of mental models held for a single product or system. My synesthetic understanding of time serves as an example of how unique (and downright weird) these models can be. As designers, it’s our job to acknowledge these preconceived understandings in order to create positive and engaging user experiences.

⚠️ A Disclaimer ️️⚠️

For this analysis, I wanted to use my time-space synesthesia as an example to highlight the importance of mental models (learn more about synesthesia here). However, I should note that synesthesia does not fit the UX definition of a mental model in three important aspects:

  1. Mental models can be formed through past experiences using the product, incomplete assumptions, or training. My synesthesia, however, is innate.
  2. Mental models can change based on a person’s ongoing interactions with a product, system, or tool, putting their preconceived understandings to the test. My synesthetic maps, on the other hand, have remained constant throughout my life.
  3. Time is a very abstract concept representing an intangible system. In UX, mental models usually represent simple objects, products, or systems. They are influenced by clues about how things work through signifiers, affordances, and constraints. Time-space synesthesia represents a much more abstract understanding.

Describing my synesthesia as a mental model may be a bit of a stretch. That said, I believe it does succeed in acting as an interesting analogy to illustrate how these beliefs affect product experiences.

It’s also fun to write about. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

This article was originally published to the UX Collective on Medium.

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