In UX we talk about mental models as pertaining to what people think about a UI. How they think the system will work based on past experience, and their expectations that these interfaces will work similarly. But we also form mental models of the external world based on all the information we take in every day. One of the primary ways we understand our surroundings is through our eyes. Our vision helps us to understand an objects various characteristics, as well as what it is, where is is, and its relationship to things around it.
These colorful toys have been in my doctor’s office for years. I’ve always liked them but I had never interacted with them since I tended to sit on the other side of the room. Their shapes and colors always made me think of them as playful and inviting, structurally sound, yet soft and approachable.
On a recent visit a mother was letting her small son play with them. He picked one off the wooden floor and dropped it. The sound went off like a bang. Besides the sudden shock, I also felt a sense of disappointment. They were hard plastic! My mental model needed updating. My environment had changed and I needed to update the framework that supports who I am and the way I perceive the world. No longer the soft, inviting toys I thought them to be, they were now disruptors. Unwelcome components of my environment that I now eyed warily. What if someone else dropped them on the hard, wooden floor? I don’t want that kind of disruption in my doctor’s office.
An space I once viewed as comfortable and relaxing now had a tinge of anxiety to it. If I had touched them at some point before I would have instantly known what they were made of and prepared myself for their inevitable disruptive capacity. I wonder if the toy’s designers even took this aspect of their design into account.
Our mental models are based on our experiences of past events and form a framework for us to understand the present. When creating a UI we have to understand the user’s mental model and design to accommodate it. But in the larger context of our lives we always have to be prepared for a little dissonance every now and then to accommodate change. The only constant.