Have you ever wondered why most apps and websites all feel “familiar” to some degree? You might assume it’s just best practice and that’s true, but the real answer starts in our own brains. I'm generalizing, but our brain is trying everything it can to make life easier for us, and reduce the cognitive load. Especially in today's society, you can't blame it for doing so.
So, our brain looks for shortcuts, or heuristics. Typically, our mind organizes things we know about stuff. That's pretty vague, so here's an example: A door is rectangular, has a knob on the right hand side which you can turn clockwise, and the door swings inwards when you enter a new area. This is the way.
This is what's called a mental model of a door. We store this information as general truths so to speak, so that we don't have to figure out the concept of a door every time we encounter one.
In short, a mental model is how the user believes a system will behave at hand. A mental model works on the cognitive knowledge a user already has when interacting with a tool from past interactions. In UX we use these mental models to design flows that make sense to the user. It creates less friction and guides the user more easily through the flow.
Translating real life to digital
A mental model isn't only shaped from past interactions with other digital tools but we can also translate them from real life experiences. If we're designing an experience that needs to be translated to digital, it's useful to look at how users interact in this environment in real life. For example, shopping. Frank is our user.
👉 Frank goes to the clothing shop down the street to snoop around: This is our home or discovery feed;
👉 Frank picks a few cloths to try on: Add to your favorites or wishlist to check out later or add to basket;
👉 Frank then tries on some things and picks what wants to keep: Finalizing your cart;
👉 Frank finally goes to the counter to pay: This is our checkout flow;
Frank already knows how this process works in real life, so if this flow is similar in the app he uses, the experience will click faster instead of having to learn new interaction, resulting in a smoother, more natural feeling user experience.
Tools that work on a mental model
Chatbots and experts
People know by now that chatbots are bots, but if you make it clear to the user that this is just to filter out the first questions and that you'll be in touch with an expert later on if you don't find your answer. By showing the face of an "expert", the user feels more comfortable that he is in good hands from a real person and not a bot. Put the face of experts at places in your digital product where you think the user might have some questions so the user can stay in their flow. Or add an overlaying help chatbot present on all screens but I think my personal preference is when you use the chat/expert button already in context of the issue instead of having to explain your issue again to the bot.
This isn't a big one but, by welcoming the user to the app with a simple "Good morning, Frank" gives a confirmation to the user that they're using the right profile and it makes the app more personal. Make that name more present throughout the whole app. In articles, in to-dos, during checkouts.... It's like the app is talking to you instead of acting socially detached like a computer in the 90s. In general you should try implementing casual, friendly copywriting throughout your application. Present instructions and content written using fun language. This again will make the app more personal and less detached.
Me personally, I’m a big fan of interaction animations. It gives a certain emotion and dynamic to an otherwise static UI. An app for teens should be poppy and quick with a lot of gestures that interact with the UI. A shopping application on the other hand, should be structured with guided animations so that the user can tell where their shopping items are going.
These are just some examples of tools that work on a mental model that adds to the human feel of a digital product. Everything indicates we’re heading towards a world where digital and physical will become more and more intertwined, so you’re definitely not wasting your time making your current applications more personal, and feel more human.