Cognitive Models: Thinking Ahead

February 13, 2012 — Leave a comment

Today let’s talk about cognitive models. That’s really a fancy term for how someone thinks about something. It’s taking an action or goal and creating a model in your brain about how you would perform that action. For example, if someone said to “make dinner” then that would mean different things to different people. Some are going to throw something in a microwave, others craft something from what’s in the pantry, others go to a restaurant, and others pull out their cookbooks to pick something appetizing. The cognitive models for different people can differ for the same activity.

Introspección > Música. (CenTerO / JaguariTech)

Introspección > Música. via CenTerO / JaguariTech (Flickr)

As UX professionals, we need to know the cognitive models of our users. If we’re designing within that model then their experience becomes much more enjoyable and seamless than designing something that they have to explore and discover to build a new model. Sometimes that can be a good thing but we still need to know cognitive models in order to be intentional about when we break that rule. Let’s look at some questions to ask when designing and accounting for cognitive models.

  • Who are your users?

    This seems so basic for a UX person, but it’s absolutely essential. Cognitive models for kids are way different than adults. Cognitive models for tech-savvy geeks probably will be a a lot different than an older user that barely knows how to open Internet Explorer. The people using it will determine what cognitive models you need to design for.
  • What are the users familiar with?

    Most of the time you probably want to stick with what your users already know. It’s the path of least resistance and what users will try to do first. If your goal is to get them from point A to point B in the least amount of time with the least resistance then figuring out what they are familiar with will aid in accomplishing that.
  • What’s research say?

    Slow it up Speedy Gonzalez! Maybe we’re not sure how users think about something or maybe our model of their model is wrong. User research is great way to help establish a very defined cognitive model of your users. You’ll probably have to do some combination of ethnography and a cognitive walkthrough to get the full picture but any form of user research should at least provide some level of clarity.
  • Are you working with a shifting paradigm?

    What if your working in an area that doesn’t have a defined paradigm yet? A lot of mobile is actually still this way. I think this is an awesome place to be as a UX Architect. You can see what’s out there, but you’re also given some freedom to see what you can come up with yourself! Maybe you’ll design the next big UX pattern.
  • How can you control it?

    Sometimes we’ve got to be able to control their model to a degree. Wizard-style processes accomplish this. Maybe you just need to shake it up for a specific purpose. Still, you need to know what their cognitive model is and be able to design to purposely flip that on its head or guide it down a more pre-determined path.

What are your thoughts on cognitive models and how to use them?

Justin Smith

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