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: 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.

Content Strategy Gut Checks: First Impressions Testing

Content Strategy Gut Checks: First Impressions Testing is the third in a series of six posts discussing the testing of content and content strategy models in usability and user testing. Did you miss the first two posts?

Read Part One: The Café Test
Read Part Two: The Focus Group

You’ve got butterflies in your stomach. It’s a nervous, happy, scared out of your mind (but deliriously excited all at the same time) rush. You’ve spared no expense in sprucing yourself up and have taken care to be sure everything is enticing to the eye.

No doubt about it, you’re looking hot. But when users start knocking at your virtual door for their first date, will your content be the horrible garlic breath that turns them off or will they find the spark that keeps them coming back for more of what only you can truly offer?

Just as in dating or a job interview, a first impression can be the most lasting, which is why taking the time to test for them is crucial — both for the visuals and the content.

When To Use First Impressions Testing

As far as I know, “First Impressions Testing” isn’t exactly a formal “usability” test. I’ve always used it as a field test that can be combined with, or performed separately from, the Café Test.

They’re best used early in the web design process or when you need to capture first impressions on a new addition to a site. I also find them valuable for form and e-mail testing. The first impressions gathered are analyzed to determine whether initial reactions have colored a user’s feeling about the remainder of the site/email/etc. First impressions testing that is specific to content should be focused on subjective measures, which could include:

• A user’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction with page content
• A user’s comfort and understanding of content concepts
• A user’s thoughts and impressions about the tone and understanding of the context of the content within the design
• A user’s self-reported thoughts about the purpose of the site and content

How To Get Started

First impressions testing can be performed in a variety of environments and in a variety of ways. There are a few remote services that provide this type of usability testing (e.g. Optimal Workshop’s ChalkMark). You could also contract a testing lab if you don’t have a lot of strong experts in house, but I’m of the opinion that more often than not you don’t need a formal lab to perform first impressions testing.

Testing by Trinity

Setup for a first impressions test is similar to the café test. You can stage in a high traffic area, like a café (preferably one where your target user might be) to approach potential users or invite a section of existing users to a conference room in your office, etc. You can also do this test remotely through a conferencing application. Just be sure to test users one at a time.

If they’ll allow you to do so, take video or photos. If you’re using a laptop, use the onboard camera to record facial expressions. You don’t need a separate moderator, but it helps to have someone take notes when you reach the question portion of the test.

Your willing participant should be seated facing your device of choice with nothing on the screen and then shown the homepage/page/application/etc. for five to 90 seconds. If I were only testing the design, I’d do five to ten seconds maximum, but since we’re talking content here, give them a bit longer to see what they focus on first.

Once the time is up, hide the site and ask the user to begin relating everything they can recall from the page.

Questions, Questions, Questions

When asking the participant to relate their first impressions, focus your questions on subjective measures. Be sure not to be too leading or to use any language that might influence their answers. You want a true first impression, not something you’ve potentially influenced. Ask them to recall everything they can from their short experience with the testing material. Questions can include but aren’t limited to:

• What was the purpose of the [content] on the site?
• What were the key takeaways of what you read/saw/heard?
• Did you understand the content on the page?
• What were the first things you noticed when the page appeared?
• Can you recall or describe the mood of the site?
• How does your overall impression of this [content] influence your perception of the site/product/etc?


Key deliverables from a first impressions test will be qualitative reports. It’s fine to detail a day’s worth of testing into a single report, but sessions can be broken out by individual if you wish.

If you videotape the session, use clips and captures in your reporting to bring back to designers and content stakeholders. Just make sure you capture all of the thoughts, feelings and end with how those impressions color a user’s opinion of what the experience is as a whole.

Summing It Up

Testing first impressions for the content of the site is tricky because a user may naturally be drawn to site visuals prior to diving into the content. That being said, any qualitative data you gather during first impressions testing should be taken for what it is — a field test.

Use those impressions to be sure you have the right calls to action, the right amount of space allocated for content and the right mix of visuals to put content in the right context based on user expectations. No one wants to be the one with the garlic breath and you don’t want your user’s first impressions to cloud his or her perception of what you have to offer down the road. So test to be sure you can make a first good impression before you toss yourself to the world.

“Disgust” (photo) by Jeremy Brooks. Used via CC BY-NC 2.0 License.

“Testing” (photo) by Rebecca Partington. Used via CC BY-SA 2.0 License