Mental Model For Working Adult Seeking Financial Aid

Mental Modeling For Content Work: Creation

Before I sold my soul to the advertising industry, I was in journalism. As a cub reporter, I covered crime, courts and emergencies.

The first year of the beat, I wasted a lot of time trying to “perfect” my craft through technical means. I poured over award winning coverage and studied syntax, style and structure. I shortened my ledes, broadened my vocabulary and incorporated new adjectives. It didn’t help.

Moleskine NotesMake no mistake, I was a strong reporter (often thanks to some excellent editors), but it wasn’t until I physically moved to my coverage area and began embedding myself among my subject matter that I began to produce work that resonated with anyone.

I stopped calling sources, instead meeting them for coffee. Whenever possible, I rode along with police officers, embedded myself with SWAT teams and did my best to “experience” stories. I arranged to be put in county lockup to understand what an average inmate’s day was like and I trained as a firefighter for several days. Over time, I began understanding the motivators, behaviors and pain points that my subjects experienced. My stories were better, not because I had better relationships with my sources, but because as I immersed myself in my subject matter. The details that I discovered by being part of the culture helped my writing become more clear.

And so it is for mental modeling for content work. The details – extracted from careful interviews, shared experiences and observations – will ultimately bring clarity to content planning and strategy to populate our systems.

Building Content Focused Mental Models

In her book, Indi Young discusses work that falls into the content strategy process in chapter 12. For Indi, content strategy fits in mental modeling as a parallel path or after the process has been completed. She describes this process as “Content Mapping:”

The content map includes all functionality that already exists and is planned for your solution. Let me assure you that the name “content” does not limit your map to text documents. While it may have started out as a description of an inventory of a news web site or something, it means much more than that these days. Your content map should include all the ways you serve people, including things like monthly account statements or yearly awards banquets, registration for training courses, or a mortgage calculator. Anything that has to do with your relationship with those you serve should be included in your content map.

For Young, the “content map” structure makes little difference to the mental model. The important thing is that the boxes will fit underneath the towers that will ultimately be a part of the solution. My approach differs a bit from Young’s in that I find it much more beneficial to the user experience team if I build the “content map” in the form of a mental model as opposed to the traditional content inventory or visual map that she highlights in her book.

And because I usually have a UX partner that I spend the majority of my project with, I make sure they’re an active participant in the mapping of content to the models.

Bases, Support Structures, Towers and Roots

Before we begin the mental modeling process, we need to go back to the engagement maps we discussed in information gathering. The key engagements we highlight for personas will form the “bases” for “support structures” and “towers,” when we begin plotting our mental models.

A quick check of our engagement map reveals four key patterns for the “Returning Student” persona. They include: “Explore Options,” “Plan and Immerse,” “Overcome Fear,” and “Take Action.” Each pattern (engagement) is used as a “base,” which serves as the foundation to which we’ll start to build out a case for content to address user needs (“towers”).

But before I build towers, I add “support structure” to the base via “intentions.” Intentions provide context to how content should be framed for task completion. I have most often found that intentions either come up in interviews and could be considered a secondary pattern, or could be implied from verbatims that are consistent with one another. They aren’t necessary to a mental model for content work, but I find that they strengthen the strategy and are valuable to content creators.

Once we have bases and intentions we can begin to build “towers” to establish content that aids in task completion. These boxes should essentially label tasks that the user would want to complete. I leave the labels to these boxes in question form to further assist in content planning for task completion.

Below the line – living underneath the bases – I box out what I refer to as “roots.” For my work, “roots” are the content or features of existing systems that help achieve the engagements we’ve used as bases. This is where all that time you spent content auditing saves it in the long run.

Here’s how these elements work together.

Elements of Mental Models For Content Work

What you see above is more or less a piece of a much larger model. These towers, bases and roots could go on for pages and pages depending on the complexity of the section of our system. I mapped this out using OmniGraffle, but before I begin building my artifacts in digital form, I perform modeling exercises that require a war room, transcripts from information gathering, a lot of butcher paper and reams and reams of sticky notes.

"Content Planning From Mental Models"

Depending on the size of the organization and stakeholder involvement, this might be a small group activity (read as: strategist and user experience team) or quite cumbersome (read as: client wants heavy involvement from numerous stakeholders).

The actual creation occurs in these meetings. Just as we would for a mental model for system design, we must interview our assumed users, look for patterns and organize them into the towers. For content work, I’ve found that most research will produce anywhere from 40 to 150 tasks depending on the scope of the project. The patterns that emerge from the research become important for the planning and production of content as these patterns should give us a better idea of both how a user approaches a problem and what fears, hopes, philosophies, etc. must be addressed. As you can imagine, the process is incredibly time consuming. I find a small group with the authority to make major site decisions is the best way to keep the process moving.

Most of my rooms start looking like the photo above (if not more cluttered) not long after interviews for mental models have wrapped up. And after you’ve butcher papered your office to death, you can start building the digital versions. Here’s a closer look at our returning student persona.

Mental Model For Working Adult Seeking Financial Aid

Why It’s Useful For Content Work

Mental models have numerous benefits. The research that goes into a mental model provides a deep understanding of people’s motivations and thought-processes. When they’re done right we should also gain insight to the emotional and philosophical landscape in which users are operating as well.

When we use this understanding for content work, our messages better inform the systems they populate and the users that access them. Once we uncover the roots to a person’s cognition, we have a stronger chance for understanding, learning and comprehension (which happens to be my first principle for content strategy).

But mental models aren’t bullet proof. Depending on your project, producing a mental model that is reliable for a large enough segment of your audience to influence the content strategy might be more difficult. Mental models work best when a user has formed patterns over a longer period of time.

The difficulty with mental modeling for content work is that, by nature, the need for content is normally situational. It then follows that the patterns we see coming out of our research must be strong to depend on them for the actual model and the content that comes from it.

All that said, when a mental model can be produced, it can be extremely useful for planning, maintaining and governing content over time.

There is obviously a lot more to this process than I can get into in a blog post, or a series of blog posts. If you believe mental modeling might be right for your project, I highly encourage that you read Young’s foundational work on the subject: Mental Modeling: Aligning Design Strategy With Human Behavior and find ways to incorporate it into your own content work.

On a related note, I’ll be ranting about this for 20 minutes at Midwest UX 2012 in Columbus this May. I’d encourage you to come out and add to the conversation.


This is the third and final post in a series on Mental Modeling For Content Work. Did you miss the first two?

Read: Mental Modeling For Content Work: An Introduction
Read: Mental Modeling For Content Work: Information Gathering

Mental Modeling For Content Work: Information Gathering

"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

    Mental Modeling For Content Work: An Introduction

    The average adult human brain contains approximately a hundred billion neurons used to inform and and operate the human machine. With all of that processing power, system support and design repetition it’s sometimes curious as to why the machine is such a fickle thing.

    Complete Neuron Cell Diagram

    All it takes is a moment for our mood to change. Ideas and complex concepts can form in seconds given the right amount of cognitive capacity. Even something as simple as the way a sentence is structured or the words we choose will impact perceptions or the potential for another’s comprehension. It’s precisely for all of these ambient, behavioral and situational factors factors that content strategists should be better leveraging mental mapping and modeling for the planning, design and implementation of content.

    Mental Modeling is far from a new thing. In fact, thinkers from the UX design community have been advocating its use for years (e.g: Indi Young’s Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy With Human Behaviors), because it helps in understanding users’ “reasons for doing things.” The ability to leverage this type of strategy is crucial for anyone concerned with content as well, because the content that fills the design is what should create understanding for the audience. It all falls back to task completion (which I was just neatly covering off in my previous post on user satisfaction and perception metrics).

    A VERY Brief History Of Mental Models

    From everything I’ve been able to find, the term “mental modeling” originated in Scottish philosopher and psychologist Kenneth Craik’s The Nature of Explanation, published in 1943. Possibly one of the first cognitive scientists, Craik postulated that the mind forms models of reality and uses them to predict similar future events.

    Fast forward 35-40 years from that book and to an expanded interest in cognitive science (particularly artificial intelligence) and you’ll find a number of parties advocating for the exploration and expansion of mental models.

    Mental ModelsPhillip Johnson-Laird’s Mental Models: Towards a Cognitive Science of Language, Interference and Consciousness (1983) describes mental modeling as: the creation of hypothetical processes humans go through to solve reasoning problems — essentially focusing on the system of the brain and how humans perceive the problems.

    Dedre Gentner and Albert Stevens proposed a different way of explaining mental modeling the same year in a series of papers they co-wrote (also titled Mental Models). They defined the practice as the understanding of a human’s view of the world, himself, his capabilities, behaviors and the tasks he’s asked to complete, learn or perform. Additionally, mental models account for how they perceive the effort it takes to complete them.

    Jump ahead another 5 years to 1988. Big hair, shoulder pads, cocaine and the personal computers are plentiful and widely accessible. The personal computing revolution gives birth to mental modeling for human computer interaction (HCI) and programming professionals. Don Norman’s book The Design of Everyday Things (originally titled The Psychology of Everyday Things) presents mental modeling as “a set of beliefs about how a system works.” He contended that “humans interact with systems based on these beliefs.”

    The 1990s ushered in the explosion of the Internet and had user experience architects, interactive designers, programmers and human computer interaction pros beginning to develop their own brand of mental modeling, which has been debated, modified and (at times) heatedly argued up to present day.

    Current views of mental modeling in user experience and interface design seem to hover largely around creating a support structure for making interfaces or web experiences consistent and predictable for a user. A user’s mental model should inform the designers ability to add or modify functionality or features without causing users additional pain points or retraining. I rather like Indi Young’s description for what her mental models are.

    “My mental models are diagrams that represent the thought- and action-process used to achieve a set of goals in a narrowly defined scope.”

    So, we’re here in 2011, about to bust into 2012. I’m asking you, dear content strategists, to follow the lead of our user experience partners. I’m urging all of us to start considering and implementing mental models for content work. Better yet, partner with them and take on the exercise together. In this task you’ll provide your unique content insights to better inform a complete picture to inspire their functional designs.

    Now that we’ve got the past clearly behind us, lets start exploring what is unique about mental modeling for content work.

    The Charge For Content Strategists

    For content strategy purposes, we should view mental models as a generative research technique, meaning that they should be used as an evaluative measure to frame up the mental environment in which decisions are considered, debated and ultimately decided. Many user experience professionals and agencies also refer to this as “foundational research.” This means that the efforts of our mental modeling labors may not ultimately inform content strategy to achieve business goals, but will help us in the creation of content that a user can empathize with.

    Mental models for content professionals will help us to understand and hypothesize concepts about our users’ behaviors (cue personal-behavioral context). We want to know their pain points, motivators, stressors and cognitive capabilities to ultimately understand how they are making a decision online. These foundational elements create the “model,” which will better inform both the designs of our systems and the content that fills them to reach our user in the deepest way possible.

    Once those models are created, strategists can cross tab their findings against traditional content strategy deliverables like gap analysis, messaging strategies, etc. to better inform recommendations to content creators. Sample content can then be tested and gut checked with audiences via testing panels, cafe tests or focus groups.

    Up Next

    The next logical question is how. Will dig into that next week, when we can take a deep dive into what informs successful generative research and what key usability tests or interviews you may already be doing will enable the end result. I hope you’ll stick with me and dive in head first.

    Mental Modeling For Content Work: An Introduction, is the first post in a three part series about adapting traditional views of mental modeling for the practice of content strategy.