Mental models in research: interpreting individual perceptions to understand collective behaviours

Artistic interpretation of ideas flowing out of someone's mind

Why do some people react adversely to new products or services while others fully embrace them? What external factors contribute to someone’s choices? How do local and cultural nuances affect decision-making? How do our personal past experiences impact our actions today?

Mental models help design researchers find the answers to all those questions.

In this article, our Associate Director, Laetitia Sfez, and our Research Strategist, Anteja Klimek, delve into the use of mental models as a design research methodology, and how brands and businesses operating within a research and innovation landscape can benefit from them.

What are mental models and how are they applied in research?

In social sciences, mental models are defined as ‘cognitive representations of external reality’, acting as the foundations of our reasoning, decision-making and overall behaviour. They are unique to each individual and are based on personal perceptions, past experiences and cultural and social associations.

‘They’re like a set of pillars on top of which we construct our worldviews. But it’s important to understand they are not made of solid concrete, but of flexible materials that bend and shift according to our life experiences’, says Laetitia Sfez, Associate Director at intO.

Mental models are like a memory box stored inside all of us, that we unconsciously refer to every time we have to make a decision.

Within a research context, mental models can be an extremely useful tool to map out the diversity of participant’s perceptions and values. This methodology opens a window into complex and dynamic internal systems, helping researchers make sense of different viewpoints and thought processes.

‘As researchers, we always need to keep in mind that people’s perceptions of the world around them are constantly being shaped by their unique, personal experiences. When we orchestrate our research methods accordingly, we get access to a rich plurality of views and opinions around a certain product or service – and our job is to transform those into valuable insights that brands and businesses can use to make informed decisions’, explains Anteja Klimek, Research Strategist at intO.

‘I completely agree’, says Laetitia. ‘The insights we can unveil when building mental models of the participants we’re researching are extremely valuable. They allow us to understand the ‘why’ behind people’s behaviours, drivers and preferences.’

Mental models give us a deeper understanding of people’s motivations and thought processes, especially when paired with the emotional and cultural landscape they operate in.

How can mental models be helpful in research for innovation?

There is a wide range of qualitative and quantitative methods that can help researchers map out different behavioural aspects of the users they’re researching. 

For instance, when referencing personas created from information previously obtained from interviews, the researcher can establish realistic expectations of a key audience; similarly, journey mapping can be applied as a visual methodology to anticipate how users would experience a product or a service throughout different stages, from awareness to adoption.

Compared to these other similar methods, mental models allow researchers to discover people’s belief systems and, in a nutshell, develop a deeper understanding of how they make decisions, react to certain situations and make sense of the world around them.

‘People are generally reluctant to make a purchase or develop a new habit if it doesn’t resonate with their existing expectations or experiences’, says Laetitia. ‘This should be at the top of mind when brands are designing a new product or service – if your design matches the mental model of your desired audience, you will be on the right path towards successful adoption.’

As a specialist in research strategy, Anteja has mapped out some key points on how mental models can be beneficial for businesses:

  • They help to navigate through the complexity of behavioural science and, in exchange, evolve UX and innovation workstreams in-step with behavioural change
  • They contribute to develop robust knowledge based on the integration of both expert and local perspectives
  • They support the identification of misconceptions about users and stakeholders’ behaviours
  • They create a collective representation of a framework to improve decision-making processes (for instance, when tackling specific customer groups or segments)
  • They inform product development decision (such as user flows) as well as foresight and business strategy (like innovation roadmaps)
  • They allow cross-functional teams to look through the same lens of user needs and behaviours and how to evolve in-step

But what happens when businesses want to introduce a new product or service on a global scale? How can they successfully incorporate specific local and cultural perceptions into their innovation strategies? In the next article, we will unveil how the team at intO has devised a framework for mental models when orchestrating research across different regions.

intO’s recommended reading list

Mental Models: An Interdisciplinary Synthesis of Theory and Methods

The Great Mental Models: General Thinking Concepts

Mental Models: The Best Way to Make Intelligent Decisions

Evaluating the Application of the Mental Model Mapping Tool

Mental Models: Structural Differences and the Role of Experience

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Methods Research

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