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.

Contextual Delivery: How To Hit The Moving (And Evolving) Mobile Target

In the current landscape, strategies for mobile content are obsolete by the time you get blessing to start using them. It seems a lot of technology is discarded almost as quickly as it is adopted, making content delivery for the mobile set a bit of a moving target. So when we think about mobile strategies, I’d argue it’s smarter to think about content delivery in a contextual fashion versus relying too heavily on the new what’s next in emerging mobile technology.

So, what types of technology and what practices in mobile are stable enough to invest your time and money in when it comes to your content? Here’s three must do’s when you start thinking about contextual content strategy when it comes to the mobile user.

1. Start by strengthening what you’ve got.
If you already have a Web site, for crying out loud, optimize it for mobile already. If you’re saying, “My site isn’t flash so I’m good to go,” you’re fooling yourself. Start thinking about mobile users differently. They’re leaned forward and they’re on the go, meaning their attention is even more limited than the average laptop or desktop user.

The screen is smaller and these users rely on their fingers and thumbs to navigate your content. That means you want linkable buttons and calls to action that are appropriate to the pinching, pulling and tapping that comes with mobile keyboards and touch screens. (Note: tablet computers like the iPad are a completely different beast, so please just consider handsets as being the focal point of this discussion.)

The service your site provides will also dictate how you’ll want to present on mobile as well. If you’re selling cars, your site should look very different on a mobile device than it does on a laptop. If you’re a blogger, the content should be even more varied and different in presentation as the automaker.

The smartphone market is growing at an exponential rate. As you can see by the comScore data above, use is on the rise as price points become lower and the age begins skewing higher for smart phone use (see data below). That means more and more people will be accessing your content on their mobile phone. And remember, making the experience unique and rewarding based on the device your user chooses as their primary method to access your content will always be looked upon favorably by brand loyalists.

2. Start thinking about where and when consumers are accessing your content (read as: Think GEO!)
This proliferation in Geo Specific services and content is not a fad. It’s not going away. It’s high time to start accepting the fact that you need to start thinking about the where and the when in regards to your content delivery methods. If you can vary content by time of day, (eg: virtual tours or walkthrough videos of homes via QR code on real estate signs during off hours) or serve specific content by region, whether that’s by app or through site detection, you’ll be better able to serve your users’ most immediate needs based on their physical location.

Geotagged content is certainly not a new thing, but the rise of the smartphone and mobile computing have made it a necessary evil to consider and code for moving forward.
Companies with larger national and global footprints stand to benefit greatly from the geolocation phenomena, but even small companies and local establishments can benefit from a smart Geotagging strategy. Coding for it is easy (sometimes as simple as dropping in a meta tag) and there are a variety of services that offer ways to deliver custom content to those open to sharing their location data, whether it be through a tweet, a check in or through their smartphone’s GPS technology.

Location and time help create context for information, and makes data much more consumable. For instance, if I’m hiking through the El Yunque National Rainforest in Puerto Rico and I have my Trails App open on my iPhone, it would be great to come across someone who may have blogged about that elusive waterfall I keep missing out on. And I could do it had the blogger simply added geo.position meta tag to his data.

While you may not need to go so far as partnering with a major geolocation vendor like Foursquare, thinking of the ways that your user’s location influences your content is an absolute must when it comes to mobile delivery and how it’s perceived contextually. Even if you just start thinking of adding your own photos and information to Google Maps, you’re off to a better start than ignoring Geo Data altogether.

3. Make it easy and keep it simple.
If you’re a brand, don’t make it too difficult to complete a transaction through your mobile site or app. Ultimately, you want content that helps make the user or consumer’s goal easier, essentially bridging the gap between online and brand centric experiences. While they may not be in your store or interacting directly with you, your mobile content serves as the conduit to bring the online and offline experiences together.

Any content that you create for mobile should be optimized and quick to load. Mobile users have high, if not slightly unreasonable expectations, due to the fact that mobile apps and sites are supposed to have streamlined features, which should, in theory, offer speed in return.

The key takeaway is to get your head in the game. If you don’t, you’re going to miss the first part of a major revolution in digital and you’ll miss a key opportunity to have your content make good contextual sense to your potential users, customers or supporters.

Want to discuss it further? Drop me a comment and we can hash it out.

Photo used under Creative Commons License courtesy: Gare and Kitty