Information Behavior & Mental Models

Last month I wrote about emotion and web site design in Creating An Emotional Response From Your Web Site. How often do you have a happy, fun, relaxing and utterly satisfying experience while browsing an online retail web site? Do web site designers know or even care what puts us in the zone? What does it feel like to be a captivated web user?

User interface expert John Sorflaten recently wrote about his personal experience using Amazon for book purchases in “Flow” – The iPhone (and web) Experience that Sell. He describes the “flow experience” as

  • Narrowing of the focus of activity
  • Filtering out of irrelevant perceptions and thoughts
  • Loss of self-consciousness
  • Responsiveness to clear goals
  • A sense of control over the environment

He used buying a book as an example. You can also think of video games. In my house, that “filtering out of irrelevant thoughts” usually means that while the kids or husband are glued to their seats blasting away “the enemy,” I’m invisible. By the same token, if I’m shopping online at Overstock.com, the world consists of me, product pages and the promise of domestic bliss if I buy the Havanah Print 310 Thread Count Regency Duvet Cover Set.

This is what ecommerce wants from us. They want nothing better than to take over our sense of logic. To them, all inbound search traffic should be a lunatic crowd of credit card waving impulse buyers. In reality, it’s difficult to find a web site or application that thrilling.

As Sorflaten pointed out, studies show users will try an application once and the majority will never return to it. I recall that someone gave a presentation at a conference on mobile device applications. She admitted that she had downloaded hundreds of them to try but eventually kept and used but a few. We want to be challenged. We like to search for what’s available. As web site visitors, we expect a satisfying experience. The preference and intent of that experience changes with each person.

The importance of understanding mental models

The other day I was presented with a situation by a company who sells extremely high tech products to engineers. Their web site is presently designed for one type of mental model—male, highly educated, skilled and who converses in “the language of our industry.” They know this target customer well, and have a good idea what his expectations are upon arriving at their web site.

They wish to add another user path, however. This new mental model is someone who is not as familiar with the industry, products and terms. The mental model of this person, who has never ordered parts before vs. one who is accustomed to abbreviated jargon and code names for methods, is different. The challenge for the web site team is to design for both sets of users and not alienate current users.

In brief, a mental model describes how you or I would do something. It’s our thought process. It’s our expectations. So for example, we may share a common mental model regarding web sites. We arrive knowing beforehand that the web site will have a logo, navigation and content.

Usability expert Susan Weinschenk wrote a fantastic article on mental models called The Secret to Designing an Intuitive UX: Match the Mental Model to the Conceptual Model. In it, she writes:

“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 those— 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.”

The high tech company wanting to introduce a new user path has quite an adventure in store for their user interface design team. Should the colors be different? Can one group withstand less white space and more images on a page than the other? What do they need to know about engineers in general? For them, I went out and found a study on engineers’ information behavior. I learned they spend less time on locating the source of the information and information within that source and more time focused on problem solving and decision making. That indicates to me the designers must make it simple to conduct tasks and cut out a lot of wordiness. Information density is now a site requirement.

Information behavior and emotion

Weinschenk writes, “If the product’s conceptual model doesn’t match the user’s mental model, then the user will find the product hard to learn and use.”

Search or social media marketers often don’t understand information behavior. Their role is focused on driving traffic to web sites. A great case study from researcher Helena M. Mentis describes the Memory of Frustrating Experiences, where she states that it’s the “perception of the experience” that matters more than the actual task. In usability circles we talk about “cognitive” behavior or cognitive walk through testing. This is because the more intense the experience, positive or negative, the more we are inclined to remember it.

Which design elements we choose to create flow, or an emotional response, will vary. Some homepages put all their money on one gigantic Flash presentation taking up the entire top half of the page. If your mental model is a problem solving, (“I have 2 minutes to look for what I need”) person whose laptop just crashed and they’re trying to access your homepage from their cell phone, you’ve just shattered the expectations of this user.

The Mentis study was especially interesting for those in software application design. User frustration was found in situations such as error messages in computer jargon the user didn’t understand or the actual inability to perform a physical task such as using a line drawing tool. When applying metrics to defects or site performance outcomes, we may measure it is “mild”, “moderate”, “big” or a “show stopper”. We’re interested in the human interaction response that doesn’t show up in Google webmaster Tools or raw server logs.

It might sound like nonsense to be so concerned with how your web site users feel. Site visitor behavior may be the last thing on your requirements list, if there at all. Just remember that search engines are tracking user behavior—and studying it too. If someone has fallen madly in love with the prices, search and task process of your website, they’ll remember it, recommend it, return to it and by golly, search engines will gladly come along and give it the rankings it deserves.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Search & Usability

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About The Author: is the SEO/Usability Consultant for Cre8pc. Her work combines website and software application usability testing with a working knowledge of search engine optimization.

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