"Vintage Phrenology Diagram"Now that we’ve given a proper history lesson and introduced the concept of mental modeling, we can take a look at how we gather the information required to build a content driven mental model. But before we do that, (because I apparently love marathon posts) let’s explore the “why,” and attempt to get a better grasp on how our brains work and the concept of intersubjectivity.

Shared Experience as a Foundation

If you don’t have much of a background in philosophy, the social or psychological sciences, you may not be familiar with the concept of intersubjectivity. Most would agree that it refers to a cognitive state somewhere between subjectivity (judgment based on individual personal impressions and feelings and opinions rather than external facts) and objectivity (judgment based on observable phenomena and uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices), which refers to a shared understanding of meaning or concept by more than one person.

Love is perhaps the most oft cited example of intersubjectivity in that it implies a shared feeling of care or affection among others.

If we use intersubjectivity as our starting block for creating a mental model, we can build out individual personas that we create to begin accounting for shared desires, intentions, emotions or even moods that our content or site’s purpose should evoke. Starting with the shared elements and experience allows us to focus on elements that directly influence our ability to comprehend content and shape how we perceive it, which ultimately leads to the creation of work that a user can empathize with and that solves a task.

It’s important to note that to even begin to create a model in this way we must eschew the belief that mental models are anything other than the output of generative research. The goal of mental modeling is to create content that users can better empathize with, which is why intersubjectivity is the perfect launchpad. Instead of trying to create content for EVERY user, we rely on the shared experience. If we want to become more laser focused on personalization, we can utilize an adaptive content model against our core content offering; but that concept that deserves a volume of work to itself.

History? Check. Baseline theory/rationale? Check. Let’s get on with it already.

Segmentation and Interviews

To even begin establishing a mental model, we must begin start by defining audience segments that have identifiable behaviors. For example, if we happen to be a large nonprofit organization responsible for collecting applications and disseminating information about receiving financial assistance for education, we might segment our audiences as:

  • Parents of perspective students
  • Recent high school graduates
  • Current students receiving aid
  • Adults re-entering the education process
  • Now that we’ve identified our audiences, we can craft a hypothesis or perform research (more on that further down) to gather insights about each segment’s behaviors. From there, we can explore how those behaviors might inform how an audience might navigate our site or use our content to complete tasks through the formation of our mental model.

    It’s in this exercise that we can begin mapping or drawing out potential use cases, just as we would do within a user experience or information architecture approach.

    In my work, I find I often start to develop my mental models by first trying to postulate how a given audience or persona would journey through the site and what those motivations might be. For that exercise I have stolen and frequently use a diagram identical to one that I first came across on a post called Cognitive, Schmognitive from Erin Kissane (p.s. Thanks Erin! Not sure I’ve told you that I lean heavily on these in my work).

    These cases MUST be postulated from the end user’s point of view and the world that they live in, because our different segments might very well have VERY different content needs.

    An adult hoping to receive new training after being out of college for 15 years will have very different attitudes and fears than a recent high school graduate. We will need to create content that will help him to rationalize his decision, understand the impact it will have on his current finances or that addresses his specific situation. Going back to college is never an easy decision and we need to be sure that the content (and in some cases the user experience) addresses those concerns as opposed to simply laying out the options.

    So how did I populate the engagement map? Well, that all goes back to my constant plea to strategists to be better ethnographers (and better pals with UX professionals). These insights could come from a variety of places. My personal belief is that the best data comes from one on one interviews with members of your segment or from focus groups.

    Can you create engagement maps without performing interviews or conducting research? Absolutely. Should you? I wouldn’t. The lost time and ultimate re-working of content that doesn’t work is worth the effort and cost up front in my opinion. I generally loathe, and avoid surveys at all costs and never use them in creating mental modeling. If you don’t have the time (or budget) to complete numerous rounds of interviews, you could pull from existing studies or leverage data available from research organizations, your internal site search records.

    When I create mental models I use all or a combination of the following depending on client desires and budgets.

    1. Task Analysis
    The identification and understanding users’ goals and tasks, the strategies they use to perform the tasks, existing toolsets and solutions, problems they experience, and the changes they would like to see in their tasks and tools.

    2. Contextual Inquiry
    Basically, contextual inquiry is the observation of a user in their environment. Particular attention is paid to the work they do, how the interact with the things around them and how they use what we’re attempting to model for (When I keep telling Content Strategists to be better anthropologists, this is what I’m referring to).

    3. Participatory Design
    Exactly what it sounds like. Designers and users work together to design a system. Think card sorting, white boarding, etc. When it comes to content, pay particular attention to navigation structures and try to organize things around your engagement maps.

    4. Interviews/Focus Groups
    Gathering data extracted from interviews to understand beliefs, behaviors, pain points, fears, etc. This is where the bulk of analysis should go when you’re creating your models. In person interviews are absolutely crucial to understanding your site segments and for the ultimate content planning that will follow.

    5. Usability Testing
    Verifying an existing design, its content or system. Usability tests can be performed in the wild or in a laboratory setting.

    Notice a theme developing here? You have to talk to people and those people really should be your users. I’m typically shocked to learn that

    Now that we’ve got a baseline engagement map for our user, we can start to model all of the content we’ll need to start accounting for our returning student’s context. We’ll cover all that off in our final post.


    Mental Modeling For Content Work: Information Gathering is the second in a series of three posts about using mental models to inform content strategy. Did you miss the first post? Read Mental Modeling For Content Work: An Introduction