Where will Mental Models fit into my research?
Indi Young’s Mental Models method involves two major affinity diagramming sessions. First, the design team brainstorms on the activities of the potential user base. The affinity diagramming is used to group related tasks and determine audience segments, which are named and used to write up a screener. She also advises interviewing project stakeholders and matching up project goals to the audience segments. Approximately one hour unstructured interviews are held with potential users with a focus on the goals and activities found in the original affinity diagramming exercise. After the interviews, transcripts are combed for “tasks.” For Young, tasks are not specifically related to the tool, nor are they the broader goals. From an interview with Young:
These days I’m trying to call it behavior, motivation, philosophy, and emotion but stay away from statement of fact, references to things, preference, and the actual use of the tool. I want to know what people think as they walk down the hallway to go do something. I call this the hallway test.
Customers are just thinking about their reactions to the tool. They are not trying to squeeze water out of a water bottle, they are trying to quench their thirst. Of course you want to listen to them, but at the same time you want to interpret.
They aren’t going to approach you and say, “I’m trying to quench my thirst, make it quench faster.” When you try to do it at the level of the tool, you’re blinkered by what that tool does already. I’m interested in the mind process – what you are you trying to get done. [What Is Your Mental Model? An Interview With Indi Young by Chris Baum]
Once these behaviors and processes are pulled, a second round of affinity diagramming takes place, this time with the actual user tasks (vs the team’s brainstormed ideas). Similar tasks are grouped and labeled, and then further grouped into larger chunks. These tasks are then sorted under even broader labels. They end up one half of what Young calls a “spine” diagram – a quick way to look at all of the motivations and tasks associated with what the project is focusing on. The other half of the “spine” is for existing content or tools (for example, what a website currently offers). Once current offerings are lined up with a model of what users actually do, gaps should be easily seen and analyzed. The diagram can then help serve as a strategic design tool.
Young’s Mental Models falls into two of the major methods Cooper describes in About Face 3 – stakeholder and user interviews. Cooper recommends phasing interviews into 3 stages, and what’s nice about the Mental Models diagram is that it can continually be updated throughout all three. It could also potentially serve to point out holes where further user research should be held for large applications – for if there are very few tools to work with aspects of the user process, those tasks can be examined further.
The primary topic for my mental model diagram is building and maintaining a website using a content management system. I would like to look beyond the tool and work towards an understanding of what matters to people in administering a website, how they’ve worked through various projects, what their day to day work is like, and any challenges they face. My goal is to use this research to help find innovative strategies for the administrative interface of CMS’s. I will use Young’s Mental Models process as a starting off point – matching up the user tasks to a CMS’s offerings might not fit the scope of this project, but I’d like to create the top half of the “spine” and define user segments. I’ll also explore other techniques like personas and use cases as I a do additional interviews.
The first step is a collaborative exercise in determining user segments.