There have been a number of defining moments in my career, but for the purposes of this blog two stand out above the rest. The first was the day I, a computer novice, looked around at my colleagues and realized they considered me a computer expert. I remember thinking, “What in the world happened? Just a few years ago I was a complete newcomer. Why do I suddenly find myself being referenced as the expert?” That realization started a chain reaction of self-analysis and tracking back through time to figure out why I had such a good grasp of computing technology while others still seemed to be “hunting and pecking.” And that led me the second big realization — the answer to my search:
I had built a solid mental model. Specifically, I had a broad model of computer concepts which I was leveraging in the face of specific unknowns, while others were still looking for the “right set of steps” every time they encountered a new situation. I recognized where the new challenge fit in the model, and as a result, I saw solutions. They just saw another problem that didn’t fit an “exact step” process. They saw yet more confusing obstacles.
That was the day I became determined to create a computer concepts mental model that would free people from needing step-by-step processes to guide them through the computing experience. That was also the day the idea of The Ultimate PC Primer was born — the idea to craft a guide that would provide a foundational mental model of key concepts rather than yet another short-lived, Point A to Point B, How-To guide for “computer dummies.” (Those books quickly become obsolete and require updates as software references change rapidly, but I’m guessing publi$her$ gladly benefit from $uch nece$$ary ver$ioning at the readers/users expense.)
Why invest in mental models? Usability expert Jakob Nielson recently posted an article on how mental models impact user interface design, specifically for Internet sites. (I don’t think he’d object to his lessons in this particular article being extended beyond web sites.) Nielson sums up by saying:
Mental models are a key concept in the development of instructions, documentation, tutorials, demos, and other forms of user assistance. All such information must be short, while teaching the key concepts that people need to know to make sense of the overall site.
That sounds a bit like the mission statement for The Ultimate PC Primer, yes? Nielson also confirms:
There’s great inertia in users’ mental models: stuff that people know well tends to stick…
Obviously, my computing mental model has served me (and others I’ve worked with) well, but if you’re (like me) trying to design a mental model for something “new” to your user, Nielson also warns…
…you face an immense design challenge: How do you explain the new concept such that users have a living chance of constructing a valid mental model…
…mental models are in flux exactly because they’re embedded in a brain rather than fixed in an external medium.
Now consider this: Newcomers to computing often don’t have any sort of mental model… other than their existing models of the non-software-based world. To illustrate the difficulty I faced writing The Ultimate PC Primer, imagine building and implanting a user’s entire mental model for modern PC usage from the ground up and to do it so solidly that nearly everything the user will encounter via the PC fits the model (so that the newly acquired model doesn’t need to be updated constantly.) That’s why I chose an external medium — the real, non-software world — to build the model upon. Sure, all analogies break down at some point, but by the point they break down — the point the user realizes his/her mental model needs to be updated — the user has likely achieved foundational baseline with core computing concepts.
Newcomers aside, today there exists a glut of PC users who have dabbled enough to get something done with a computer but really have no solid grasp of the key concepts behind the interface features they’re using. Nielson notes:
Many of the usability problems we observe in studies stem from users having mixed-up mental models that confuse different parts of the system.
Users don’t just confuse search fields; many less-techy users don’t understand the differences between many other common features…
His thoughts fit perfectly with my observations. An incredible number of users I encounter have no idea what they’re looking at on the screen. Each new program might as well be an alien from a different planet, because the user doesn’t see the commonalities. The common features are present, but what the user “sees” is interpreted through the ingrained mental model instead.
Nielson suggests that sometimes part of an existing or flawed mental model can be corrected, but having worked as a designer/developer myself, I know that can be difficult to do when your product’s goal is supposed to be productivity, not education and correction. (Note, though, I don’t disagree. It is possible. I’ve taught people to fish, occasionally.) It often requires you to deal with “mental collisions” when the existing model was learned some time ago and must essentially be unlearned.
I still maintain that constructing a solid, foundational, overarching mental model is the best way to help PC users. As for convincing clients to address it, users to admit it, and publishers to distribute it… I welcome your advice.