Mental models: Translating user thinking into effective service design

Posted by
Tess Bullen
Digital Service Design | UX design | Digital Strategy
Mental models: Translating user thinking into effective service design
When it comes to service design, it’s important to understand the mental models of your customers. Mental models are the beliefs, assumptions, and thought processes that individuals use to understand and interact with the world around them. By understanding these mental models, service designers can create more effective and user-friendly experiences for their customers. This guide will explain how important mental models are in UX and service design and outline the techniques we use validate user mental models.

What are mental models?

Mental models were first introduced by psychologist Kenneth Craik in 1943. He proposed that individuals create mental representations of the world around them to understand and interact with it. These mental models are constantly evolving as individuals gather new information and experiences. In the context of service design, mental models refer to the beliefs and assumptions that customers have about a particular service or industry. These mental models can influence how customers perceive and interact with a service, and can ultimately impact their overall satisfaction and loyalty.

For a website, or digital service, users will land on a website with pre-existing expectations about element placements and task sequences and interactions. A very simple one is that most users expect to find the site menu at the top of your website.

How do mental models influence user experience?

Mental models are cognitive tools shaped by past experiences and knowledge that aid in comprehending and managing the environment. Its importance can be found in every situation. For instance, mental models guide actions like how cars process and knowing the accelerator’s function and the steering wheel’s role. Interacting with smartphones relies on mental models, such as tapping application icons on your mobile devices, and cooking follows a model involving preheating before baking. Mental models also play roles in assembling furniture, crossing streets, using microwaves, sending emails, and playing musical instruments. These frameworks simplify actions and enable efficient problem-solving.

Understanding the mental models of your customers is crucial in service design, for:

- Creating user-friendly experiences: By understanding the mental models of your customers, you can design services that align with their thought processes and make it easier for them to use and navigate.

- Identifying pain points: Mental models can reveal potential pain points in the customer journey. By understanding how customers think and behave, service designers can identify areas where customers may struggle or become frustrated.

- Improving communication: Mental models can also help service designers communicate more effectively with customers. By using language and concepts that align with customers’ mental models, designers can ensure that their message is easily understood.

- Differentiating from competitors: By understanding the mental models of your target audience, you can create a service that stands out from competitors and meets the unique needs and expectations of your customers.

Benefits of designing with mental models

Understanding (and validating!) mental models of your target audience is pivotal to designing sound digital services. Some of the benefits include:

Better Services - enhanced user satisfaction and engagement

Using mental models as a guide, designers can create digital services and websites that are intuitive, responsive and easy to use.

Reduced cognitive load

Cognitive load is the mind effort required to process information. A service requiring too much thinking can result in user frustration and make it less usable. Designing with mental models can reduce cognitive load by using what users already know - products and services feel familiar and 'made for me'.

Inclusive and accessible

Designers can create services that match the way users think and interact. Considering mental models helps identify usability barriers and create inclusive solutions for all users or customers, with varying abilities, such as limited digital literacy.

Better decision making and investment

Understanding, and validating, mental models ensures sound design of services as we can better anticipate users needs and preferences and have validated data to support design decision and investment in developing new digital services.

Applying mental models in digital service design

Now that we understand the importance of mental models in service design, let’s explore some ways in which they can be applied.

Conducting user research

The first step in understanding the mental models of your customers is to conduct user research. This can include surveys, interviews, and usability testing. By gathering insights directly from your target audience, you can gain a better understanding of their beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors.

Creating Personas

Personas are fictional characters that represent different segments of your target audience. They are created based on user research and can help service designers understand the mental models of their customers. By creating personas, designers can better empathize with their customers and design services that meet their specific needs and expectations.

Mapping the customer journey

Customer journey mapping is a visual representation of the steps a customer takes when interacting with a service. By mapping out the customer journey, service designers can identify potential pain points and areas for improvement. This can also help designers understand how customers’ mental models may change throughout the journey.

Using mental models to inform design decisions

Once you have a better understanding of your customers’ mental models, you can use this information to inform design decisions. For example, if your research reveals that customers have a particular belief or assumption about your service, you can design the service in a way that aligns with this mental model.

Examples of mental models in digital service design


Airbnb is a prime example of a company that has successfully used mental models in service design. When the company first launched, they understood that many people had reservations about staying in a stranger’s home. To address this mental model, Airbnb created a feature that allowed hosts to verify their identity and provide a detailed profile, giving customers a sense of security and trust.


Amazon is another company that has used mental models to inform their service design. The company understood that customers often have a mental model of wanting to see and touch a product before making a purchase. To address this, Amazon introduced the “Look Inside” feature, which allows customers to preview the contents of a book before buying it.

Next steps

Mental models play a crucial role in service design. By understanding the beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors of your customers, you can create more effective and user-friendly experiences. Through user research, persona creation, and customer journey mapping, service designers can gain a better understanding of their customers’ mental models and use this information to inform design decisions. By applying mental models in service design, companies can differentiate themselves from competitors and create services that meet the unique needs and expectations of their customers.