A mental model of the customer, user, and learner experience

Digging Beyond User Preferences (Mental Models)

In my research, writing, and consulting work over the past decade, I have focused on a single concept (satisfaction) and what it means to people in the roles of customers, users, and learners. I began by exploring the relative value of concepts we collectively call “individual differences” and individually represent by concepts such as prior knowledge, preferences, and motivation.

Digging into what people expect, want, and even require of the products and services we provide, I see increasing value for the need to understand the way they see the world in terms of their experience with providers, whether that be with a business relationship as customers or from inside the products and services as users, learners, and other roles. As we carry about with us a world view in our minds, the mental representations we make of our experience in these roles is of vital concern to anyone who is conducting customer, user, or learner research to determine the nature of their individual experience.

One of the most potent and revealing of these mental representations is a “systems” view we call a “mental model.” It represents the totality of our experience in such a way that we can envision ourselves in it with almost the same clarity as if we were present in our customer, user, and/or learner activities. To test your mental model, close your eyes and count all the windows in your house or apartment. That type of visualization is actually a “running” of your mental model of where you live. You also have mental models for your customer experience.

Tapping into someone’s mental model of their experience seems like an ideal way to gather more robust and potentially useful data to drive our management or at least support of their positive experience. Unfortunately, this individual perspective is not examined as much or as deeply as it should be done and I believe that the customer experience cannot be managed as well if our customers’ mental models are not understood and addressed.

With this challenge in mind, I invite you to explore this video of a presentation by a researcher describing her observations and findings about the importance of customer/user mental models in the early stages of CEM design.

I welcome your comments in reply not only about concepts introduced in this video, but also your suggestions for how we might discover and apply understanding of people’s mental models to improve their experience.



Notes on using video: It is a long, but interesting presentation at a Google seminar (1:03). If you are short on time, cut to the chase by dragging the time-elapsed slider under the video frame to the 25:47 point for her description of mental models and user interviewing, and at 39:39 for her data visualization of user mental models based on user data.

To play the video, click on the play arrow in the center of the video frame below (or the play button below the video frame). You can expand the video frame to full screen by clicking on the expand icon on the lower right and also click on the speaker icon and use the audio slider to set your speaker volume to hear the audio.

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8 Responses to A mental model of the customer, user, and learner experience

  1. James says:

    I watched the video in its entirety and found what she had to say interesting. As I listened to her explain Mental Models I began asking myself if what she was saying was different from what I’ve learned in Instructional Design – and I found a slight difference. I realized from her presentation, as a consultant, she wasn’t focused on the development of instruction; rather she was focused on supporting customers with their job. She was really trying to develop products to support people accomplish tasks – where they wanted and how they wanted to accomplish them – to meet them at their level if you will. This reminded me of Gary Dickleman, CEO of EPSSCentral LLC. Both Gary and Insi are really focusing on building performance support tools. Gary outlines three principles which must be met for performance support tools to be effective: 1) Need to know what to do (Process) 2) Need to know how to do it (Knowledge), and 3) Need to capture how the people doing the task prefer to do it (Human Factors). Where these three principles overlap Gary calls the Performance Zone. Based upon what I heard in the video – Mental Models target the “Performance Zone”. Outside interviewing individuals to capture their mental models other suggestions for understanding begins with observation. I realize in the video Insi suggested observations alone do not capture what the person is thinking – and she is right. So why not approach it where the person is recording their thoughts (on a portable MP3 player) as they complete tasks. The goal would be for a person to talk through everything they’re thinking even if not related to the specific task. By talking through their entire thoughts a research can begin to understand the individual’s mental model as it relates to the task at hand. How you apply it aligns well with Instructional Design principles – which I found in the video. The towers really equate to content/task modeling. Finding a difference between what a person is thinking or trying to do in a given task compared to what’s available to support them in completion of that task is really just a Gap Analysis. Content Models are applied in just that manner – they look at the optimals (What an individual wants to do) versus the actuals (what is really happening) and they find the solution in the middle (Gap Analysis).

  2. Doc says:

    Thanks James, for your excellent comparative analysis between the objectives of instructional design and customer experience management and how the common thread in exploring mental models is to seek a more robust conception of people’s experience in the roles of the learner, user, and/or customer.

    If you are willing and able to dig deeper, understanding a person’s mental model may provide more context guiding a person’s attitudes and behavior than you might otherwise be able to discern from traditional discovery techniques used in instructional design, user experience, or customer experience research.

  3. Debra says:

    I watched the video in its entirety as well and found lots of things to think about.
    The approach of the presenter reminded me of the cognitive apprenticeship pedagogical model. The presenter is approaching her research participants as if they are SMEs. She is giving them credit for their own experiences, perspectives, and underlying reasons for doing things. Just as a trainer might ask a SME “Why do you do that,” or “What were you thinking about,” when trying to analyze a task, this presenter asks the same questions of her participants when trying to analyze their preferences. She says that you get much more information when you ask about behaviors and philosophies than when you look at demographics or the tools people use.
    She said a good question to ask when trying to understand research participants is “What is the person thinking about when they’re walking down the hallway?” She urged us not to discount the power of feelings and emotions, even if we’re dealing in a business setting. From my experience as a special education teacher, I know that learning is greatly affected by emotion. No matter how good the product or training is if the user doesn’t have positive feelings about it, it won’t get used. (Math anxiety, anyone?)
    Another similarity between this presentation and a cognitive apprenticeship is found in her analysis of an online dating site. Her analysis found that many potential daters stood on the sidelines of the site. They looked for what other friends said about a potential date; they wanted to get an idea of what was on the site. This is similar to the cognitive apprenticeship term of ‘peripheral participation,’ where a novice worker watches the expert, and then progressively takes on more responsibility and integrates more fully into the setting.
    I loved the idea of using the stories people tell you to get a vision of their needs.

  4. Doc says:

    Hi Debra, Thanks for sharing your insights on the similarities between this customer experience researcher’s use of mental models and some of the tactics of a cognitive apprenticeship approach to teaching and learning. Understanding and supporting a person’s “systems” view about aspects of their experience makes sense in either case because it is based on a conception that people operate in a much more idiosyncratic manner than one-size-fits-all (or even segmented) measures in education and market research can fully address.

  5. Debra says:

    Doc, I agree. In one of my other classes, we’ve been talking about measuring ROI for training. Phillips and Stone, the authors of the text we’re using, talk about isolating the effects of training. I just don’t think it’s possible to view things in isolation, particularly if an evaluation plan lacks a control group or some other isolation methodology from the start. Debra

  6. Andrew says:

    Ms. Young’s presentation of researching mental models spurred a lot of thoughts with my experience with various organizations. The leaders of the organizations I have worked with have frequently paid lip service to seeking to understand the individual perspectives and mentalities of their employees, but the organizations fail to do so with the depth and understanding of mental models that Ms. Young provides. One salient point she made was how difficult it is to achieve an understanding of an individual’s mental model with a questionnaire or interview containing a majority of close-ended questions. The participant is forced to try to align their mental frameworks with the choices provided in the survey instruments. I have directly seen the results of organizational survey instruments that spend a majority of the participant’s time confining them to a few choices about how they approach their processes on the job. I hope to study mental models with much more depth in order to give future organizational leaders and clients persuasive arguments to why the utilization of mental model evaluation will greatly benefit the organization as a whole.

    Ms. Young made clear that the mental model evaluation process is time-consuming and requires a lot of effort. I do appreciate that she encouraged future participants to be innovative and fluid in their methods for researching and evaluating mental models of individuals. After all, my understanding is that mental models are fluid and evolutionary in of themselves. The fluid and evolving process of researching and evaluating mental models directly reflects the inherent nature of mental models. Hopefully, all of us can contribute to the increased knowledge, evolution, and implementation of this research across many domains.

  7. Doc says:

    Hi Andrew, thanks for your thoughtful reply. Your characterization of mental models as fluid is right on target in my opinion – and for researchers that can be a moving target in terms of data gathering and analysis. Tactics like using a series of highly interactive open-ended questioning and the use of personas and scenarios are among the ways that we can try to capture and represent this often elusive, but vital individualized data.

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