Whether it is walking across the street or browsing Web sites on the Internet, we need to know “how” to do something to be able to successfully navigate and perform tasks. Of course, we can and do learn how to perform many novel tasks from scratch, but much of what we do are familiar tasks carried out with few if any changes to our normal way of doing it.
We rely on a certain kind of mental representation of that task domain – one that is procedural and can guide us step by step through it. This type of mental representation is the goal of training and is refined through practice.
But what happens when you are confronted with an entirely new task domain, but you don’t know that and instead assume it is a familiar one? That is where our mental representations can cause confusion or even danger in certain circumstances.
As designers of software, Web sites, or any other type of environment where users interact in a procedural manner to accomplish tasks, we need to understand the nature of this type of mental representation and make sure we support its development to meet the needs of each user in such a manner (e.g., user-centered design) that they can transfer and translate their understanding across similar task domains, such as designing an operating system or word processing interface in a way that promotes bridging of prior knowledge and experience.
To have some fun with this important concept and try to identify it in the context of customer experience, let’s consider the case of a person who can’t make sense of a restaurant setting and winds up not being served.
There is a story about Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize-winning Polish-born author, who upon emigrating to New York City in the mid-20th century came upon a restaurant and sat down waiting for his first meal in the US.
He waited quite a while, all along noticing that many waiters and waitresses were busily walking by his table with trays of food destined for other tables, but no one stopped to take his order.
Out of desperation, he grabbed the arm of one of these people and demanded that his order was taken.
It was only then that Isaac learned that his type of mental representation was inappropriate for explaining how things worked in this restaurant.
Now given that this story takes place in New York City quite some time ago, you may not be able to fully describe what specific type of restaurant Isaac chose, but a more general type that is still popular today would suffice (besides, I will tell you the name of that restaurant in my reply to this post).
Q: What type of restaurant did Isaac choose?
Q: What is the name for this type of mental representation?
When you think you have the answers (or even if you don’t, but are curious), read the comment in reply that I have posted to see the answers to these questions.
See you there,