The right mental model makes software easier to use

Recently, a client told me we needed to redesign the main data-entry form of their company’s flagship product. Customers said they didn’t like the form in our client’s SaaS or cloud-based software. After extra training, customers still felt apprehensive and intimidated by its complexity.

The online form was built years ago, without a designer, as was typical of many start-ups. Within a few years, iPhone and iPad showed people that software can be simpler, and that’s what our client’s customers wanted, too. So we were tasked with simplifying the form.

To simplify, we changed the mental model

And we succeeded. By changing the mental model—the way users believe the data-entry form to work—we managed to:

  • make data entry feel simple and easy.
  • reduce inaccurate data and increase data quality.
  • help users discover existing features that they had not been using.
  • chop 60% off the data-entry time.

These improvements in user performance and user perception are based on GOMS calculations, feedback from the client’s customers, and self-reports by participants in two usability studies. All these gains came from changing the mental model, and adjusting the user interface to clearly reflect the new mental model.

What’s a mental model?

A mental model is a representation of how something works, which helps shape your approach to doing tasks. For example, you’re probably familiar with these mental models:

  • Fast-food restaurant. You arrive, order your food, pay, receive your food, sit down, then eat.
  • Fine-dining restaurant. You arrive, sit down, order your food, receive your food, eat, then pay.

The appearance of the restaurant helps you recognise what to do, and in what order.

Similarly, a mental model can helps you complete your online task—especially if it closely resembles a real-world experiences. For example:

  • Online shopping. You visit a store website, look at products, put some products in your shopping cart, choose delivery, and then pay. Later, you may track the delivery online, and receive the product in person.

To understand how a mental model affected the users, in this case study, let’s first look at how the product was, and then how it now is.

The original mental model: Convoluted

We’re not actually sure what to call the old mental model, but we can describe the user’s task.

The user’s task is to enter the details of each communication, so they can be tracked and reported to an industry regulator. In the original workflow, you would do this:

  1. Click a button to start a new communication. In the main form, enter what was said, as well as the communication’s date, title, and whether it is confidential.
    Step 1: enter part of the information and save the communication
    You cannot enter all the information yet, before saving. For example, you cannot enter the names of people involved in the communication. That’s an obvious part of any communication—but it cannot be entered in the main format all!
    Also, when saving, if you forgot any required information, you’ll get an error messages.
    After you save, the form cannot close because there is more work to do.
  2. In a series of separate forms, select the names of people and topic tags involved in the communication.
    Step 2: link other records to the communication
    The information from each secondary form does not appear on the main form. Instead, the main form increments a counter. For example, if you link two people, the counter says 2 contact names.
    The workflow is even more complicated if the person involved in the communication is representing an organization, because then you need to select both, and link them together, with an additional pop-up form.
    Eventually, you’ll convince yourself that all the required contact names, staff names, topics, and other records are linked and counted on the main form.
  3. Save the main form again. After that, you can close the main form.
    Step 3: Save the communication a second time
    After closing the main form, we observed users doing an additional step. Most users navigate to the list of communications to confirm that the new communication is listed. This compulsion to check reflects the uncertainty that the convoluted workflow creates.

What was the original mental model called?

It was a struggle to describe the original mental model in familiar, real-world terms. The user must fill in a series of complex forms, and they need to juggle back and forth between multiple forms in order to transfer numbers to the main form. This might be the conceptual equivalent to preparing and filing income taxes—and just as unpleasant to do.
We had to change the mental model to one that was clearer and familiar.

Here’s a mock-up of the original form (left) and new form:

The form, before and after

The new mental model: “Got gossip? Fill me in”

The redesigned interface combines two simple mental models that work well for the clerks who do most of the data entry. The form supports keyboard navigation, and can be pinned, so it is always open, ready to receive the next new communication.

  • Fill in a form. This is a mental model most people understand, and—provided the information they need to fill in is readily available—represents an easy task.
  • Gossip. During the data-entry stage, a typical communication record now resembles gossip, a mental model that’s readily understood, because humans tend to like stories: “Who said what about whom, how, where, when—and what’s our view of it?” Eliciting a story adds a bit of interest to a boring data-entry task.
    Of course, the gossip model is only suited for data entry. When reporting, the user interface groups, sorts, and presents the information as professional reports.

With the new mental model in mind, we carefully redesigned the data-entry form.

Now, users only click Save once. Fill in all the details at once; no more double saving. Behind the scenes, the same two-stage saving still occurs, but there’s no need to reflect this implementation in the workflow or user interface.

Save only once

Now users select items from lists. No more linking records. Behind the scenes, the linking of records still occurs, but there’s no need to mention that these are database records.

Just select the items—don't link
To reduce the number of controls, some types of items are now combined in one list, such as the different groups, individuals, and contacts involved in a communication.

Now, users see fewer fields. No more lengthy form to fill—or so it seems. When the form appears, it is shorter. Additional fields—the ones less used—are still available if the user clicks Show all, which lets users control the complexity on their screen.

Show All, for progressive disclosure

Now, the labels support the mental model. The labels help connect the information into a story—the “gossip” of the new mental model.

The labels stitch together the story
Existing users who tested the new labels did not like the changed labels but were able to perform their tasks successfully, so we left the labels as designed. We will re-assess the labels with new users, after a suitable period, to confirm we got the mental model right.

Show the mental model, hide the inner workings

Developers write programs that work. Developers who are proud of a particular solution may not understand why that solution should be hidden from users. But if the solution is complex, a good mental model keeps that solution out of sight, hidden behind the user interface.

It’s the job of usability analysts, user-experience designers, and software developers to work in tandem. Together, we identify suitable mental models and then clearly show these mental models through the user interface—even if it’s not an accurate reflection of what’s happening in the background.

The gap between the mental model—what the user thinks is happening—and the implementation model—what the developer built—is not a misrepresentation or an inaccuracy. It’s an additional layer that ensures our software products are more usable, users are more efficient, training costs are lower, support calls are fewer, and so on—all of which are legitimate business drivers.