The right mental model makes software easier

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. Despite 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 dot-com start-ups. Within a few years, iPhone and iPad showed people that software could be simpler, and that’s what our client’s customers wanted, too.

We were tasked with simplifying the form. We did this by simplifying the mental model from “Surprise juggling” to “Got gossip? Fill me in”.

Our user research and analysis proved that the new mental model let users work faster with fewer errors.

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 helps you complete your online task—especially if it closely resembles a real-world experience. 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 called the old mental model “Surprise juggling” because it involved switching between—and potentially filling in—an unknown number of forms. Here is what it entailed.

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. Start a new Communication form. Enter what was said in the conversation, and on what date. Add a title, and say whether the record is confidential. Then save. The saved form stays open because you’re not done with it.
          First step: Enter the basic details and save the form.
          First step: Enter the basic details on one form, and then save it.
        2. Start more forms—one for every Person, Organisation, and Staff member present, and every Topic and Attitude observed in the conversation. Link these to the first form. But first, search to see if a Person, an Organisation, a Topic or an Attitude already has a form, to avoid creating duplicates.
          Intermediate steps: Use other forms to enter and link more details to the main form.
          Multiple intermediate steps: Use other forms to enter more details, and then link those forms to the first form.
        3. Return to the first form. None of the linked information appears there. Instead, a counter shows the number of linked forms. For example, if you linked two Topics, the counter says Topics: (2). Save the main form again or lose the linked information.
          Final step: Save the main form again.
          Repeated step: Save the first form again.
        4. Clean up your desktop by closing all the forms.
          At this point we observed users taking an additional step, not technically needed.
        5. View the list of Communications to confirm a record of the conversation is there. This compulsion to double-check reflects the uncertainty caused by the forms-juggling workflow.
          Extra step: Check that the communication got saved.
          Extra step: Relieve doubt about task success by checking that the communication got saved.

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 an unknown number them. Users didn’t know how many forms they’d have to juggle—hence “Surprise juggling”.

We wanted to—had to—change the mental model to one that was clear and familiar.

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. Since the work is done in batches, the form supports keyboard navigation, and can be pinned so remains open after saving, 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.
          Enter everything in one—seemingly simple—form.
          Enter everything in one—seemingly simple—form that listens to the whole story, like water-cooler gossip.
        • 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.

Below left is a mock-up of the original form—but without its many supplemental forms. Notice the bottom two rows of text showing the counters for linked forms. And at right is a mock-up of the new form, which includes everything in one place.

The form, before (left) and after.
Tap the image to enlarge it.

As with any re-design, this was an iterative process—a leap forward, but many more improvements followed.

User research and analysis: Improvements

Usability testing with users showed usability improvements that users:

  • said their data entry was now simpler and easier.
  • discovered existing features that said they had not seen before.

Analysis of the database records showed further performance and usability improvements:

  • The time between creating and saving a Communication record was 60% shorter. This is a reduction in data-entry time.
  • A reduction in edits prior to periodic reporting. Qualitative research told us analysts review and correct all records before generating a report, so fewer edits suggest fewer data-entry errors.

Show the mental model, hide the inner workings

In this example, each form is for a separate database record, which the software then links to a communication record. After the redesign, the software still does that. However, data-entry clerks don’t need to know about the structure of the database or the multiplicity of records—so the user interface no longer reflects that.

Developers write programs that work. Developers who are proud of a particular solution may not understand why their 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.