This article was adapted and reprinted with the author's and editor's permission. The
appeared in TechnicalCOMMUNICATION Volume 56, Number 2, May 2009.
About the Author
Mary Deaton is a senior member of the STC Puget Sound Chapter and a freelance usability and
interface design specialist. She prefers to work part-time so she can pursue her dream of creating a
native plant nursery at her 109-year-old Cascade Mountain miner's house.
STC UUX Community Newsletter
Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior
By Mary Deaton, Manager of the Usability and User Experience SIG
Indi Young. 2008. Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media. [ISBN 978-1-933820-06-4. 280 pages,
including index. $36.00 USD (softcover).]
Communicator, know thy audience! If we technical communicators had a mantra,
that would be it. Trouble is, what we usually know about the audience of a particular product,
Web site, or book is simple demographics, such as age and gender.
We make many assumptions about an audience based on scant data or hearsay: they don't read
manuals, they search before they browse, they are in a hurry, they know how to use a computer,
and so on and so on.
Many have written about ways to improve our understanding of our audiences. Alan Cooper, for
example, explained personas in About Face 3 (Wiley Publishing, 2007; reviewed in the May 2008 issue
of Technical Communication), while Joanne Hackos and Ginny Redish explained user profiling and task
analysis in User and Task Analysis for Interface Design (John Wiley & Sons, 1998; reviewed in the August
1998 issue of Technical Communication).
Now Indi Young, a cofounder of Adaptive Path design consultancy, tells us what we should do before we
create personas, scenarios, user profiles, or task workflows if our goal is to design based on how people
In a wonderfully concise book filled with vignettes from her long
experience as a designer, Young encourages us to stop focusing on
how someone uses a tool and shift to empathizing, understanding
exactly what a person wants to do.
Mental Models is written by someone who knows not only
how the design process ought to work, but how it actually does work
for most practitioners. Throughout the book she suggests shortcuts,
how to work in phases, and other ideas to accommodate the constraints
of time, resources, and budgets.
Young first explains why you need to develop mental models of human behavior and how to
argue for the necessary resources. She explains how the mental model feeds into all user
experience work, including personas, scenarios, workflow diagrams, and other design artifacts.
You learn who ought to be on the team developing the mental model and why it has to be a team.
Young walks you through every step of the methodology for gathering the data needed to create
your model: defining task-based user segments, recruiting, setting the scope of user interviews,
conducting interviews, analyzing the data and finding patterns, and defining the model. The Web site
has Microsoft Word and Excel templates, scripts for turning templates into diagrams, and many other
resources, including an online "appendix" for budgeting model building.
Finally, you learn exactly how to apply your model to your high-level architecture, content, product
vocabulary, and generation of features and functions. Young is focused on designing Web sites, but the
methods and principles apply to large documentation sets, desktop applications, and many other products.
Mental Models does a superb job of translating a theoretical construct into a working design tool.
Rosenfeld Media has distinguished itself in its short life by focusing on user experience design books
and getting top practitioners to write practical books. I can hardly wait for the company's 2009 releases.