When I first encountered the term Mental Model, I was really intrigued. Not entirely sure what it referred to, I imagined the use of Mental Models as a way to figure out how to design great tools. Lo and behold, this is exactly what Mental Models — when applied to the disciplines of UX or interaction design — are all about. Ha! They’re about figuring out what storyboard, work-flow, sign, symbol, pattern or interface behavior best represents the desired action in the mind of the user. And so this eventually led me to another thought: Could Mental Models be applied to Persuasion Architecture. For those of you not familiar with the term, this is the online marketing discipline also referred to as Post-Click Marketing or Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO). Which I personally like to consider subsets of the larger discipline of User Experience Design.
So back to Mental Models. The origins of the term can be found in 1940′s psychology:
“A mental model is a kind of internal symbol or representation of external reality, hypothesized to play a major role in cognition, reasoning and decision-making. Kenneth Craik suggested in 1943 that the mind constructs “small-scale models” of reality that it uses to anticipate events.”
The term is really attractive because it paints a clear picture of what we are talking about when addressing the persuasion aspect of marketing. For all the talk about emotional branding and how to tap into the reptilian (fight or flight) brain, is just that, talk. There is really no scientific way to predict how a particular group or even an individual will respond to specific messaging with scientific certainty. It’s just not possible. If it was out there, we would all know about it and all ad agencies and their creative teams would be out of work. And that would be a sad thing. Because I believe the pursuit of the next great creative idea that helps propel a brand or product is one of the reasons that makes this business so exciting.
On the other hand, mental models present a much more manageable and realistic approach to crafting persuasive media in the digital age. Instead of solely focusing on “trigger” messaging, we will spend more time focused on creating enjoyable and informative experiences that best fit the mental model of our participants (I’m purposely using the term participant instead of audience). Where emotional branding used to reign supreme, we’re seeing a shift toward a new paradigm, we might define as mental model business mapping. When you think of how consumers’ participation has exponentially increased thanks to the Internet and social media, it makes sense to see that the somewhat manipulative (or at least perceived to be as such) aspect of emotional branding will not be tolerated in its traditional form. Using the example of Michelin tires; receiving the brand message of “there’s so much riding on my tires” while showing me a picture of a baby is going to take a back seat (pun intended) to my ability to evaluate my tire needs, depending on my vehicle and other factors using a really cool online application. That doesn’t mean the baby message disappears. Actually it would probably be a good thing for it to somehow weave itself into the online experience (given the proper participants likely to identify with the message). But it is definitely in the background of a more important function that helps me decide which tires I need.
This is where marketing is really entering the domain of product development. We are talking about digital products (or tools) designed to help customers. Mental models are more important in this type of environment than demographic or psychographic information. With mental models we go straight to the practical nitty gritty of what keeps the ball moving. And that’s what I believe makes the study of Mental Models or Mental Model Mapping really interesting for crafting persuasive architecture in digital media. The ability to connect with users through a better understanding of how their understanding works fits the more transparent model of Web 2.0 communications. People are less likely to appreciate being tugged at and will prefer being gently pulled through experiences they find enjoyable and easy to use while providing them decision-making information.
We’ve entered the age where your customers have been given control of the conversation. Trying to persuade them with clever messages just doesn’t work anymore. They trust what they hear from others on social media much more than anything you can say. But they will appreciate tools that help them in their decision-making. Especially when these tools are transparent and fit their mental model. Think of the Progressive Insurance website that allows you to compare rates with other insurers. How well that website is designed to fit specific mental models will determine how well it converts visitors into customers.
When it eventually all clicks for the customer thanks to presenting them tools they appreciate because these tools/digital products/websites (whatever you want to call them) fit their mental model. You have some “mental magic” happening. Not only are they pleased and become loyal customers, they also often become brand advocates and evangelize on your behalf through social media. Which brings the topic of properly weaving social media interaction into mental model mapping. But that’s a whole other post. Stay tuned…
A great reference book on Mental Model applications to digital media:
Indi Young’s Mental Models.