I like to use the phrase “mental models” to describe the ways we view the world. It’s a neat term, because it gives a sense of solidity to mental activity, which is, perhaps, the opposite of solid. It’s hard to hold on to the way we think. Sometimes, it’s hard to even be aware of it.
But that’s where the “mental model” model becomes fascinating. It helps us see the way we think. It also helps loosen up the places of rigidity in our thinking. A model, afterall, is not a reality. It’s much easier to see how we create our perception when we can see the ways we create our thinking.
When we are working to create a behavioral change or work beyond a fear, it’s a particularly helpful concept.
But the “mental model” phrase is used more often in the technology field. And there’s a lot we can learn from the way they use it.
Basically, we have mental models about everything around us. We have a mental model around how computers should work, how telephones work, how the iPad works, etc. When designers are creating new software or technology, it’s important for them to understand what the past mental models of consumers have been.
If a design is too far from a current mental model, the product is more likely to fail. And if it is friendly to a consumer’s mental model, well, it’s likely to be more successful.
Weinschenk’s explanation is great:
“Imagine that you’ve never seen an iPad, but I’ve just handed one to you and told you that you can read books on it. Before you turn on the iPad, before you use it, you have a model in your head of what reading a book on the iPad will be like. You have assumptions about what the book will look like on the screen, what things you will be able to do, and how you will do them—things like turning a page, or using a bookmark. You have a “mental model” of reading a book on the iPad, even if you’ve never done it before.”
I love this. It emphasizes just how arbitrary our experience really is. Because of past experience, we create a model of how things are.
But these models aren’t fixed! They’re just familiar. So, while our mental model of a book might be helpful, a mental model around fear may not.
Just seeing how arbitrary our experience of the world really is can provide a huge freedom to try new things. It’s a very powerful place to come from, and it’s a very important realization to have when developing skills. Particularly public speaking and leadership skills.
When we are aware of our mental models, we can be free from them. In turn, our ability to create and engage skyrockets.