CHAPTER 13. Mental Model Diagrams

  • Background and overview of mental models
  • Rapid mental model diagrams
  • Deriving structure
  • Elements of mental model diagrams
  • Case study: A mental model for a forward-thinking insurance company

The term mental model has its roots in psychology. It refers to someone’s thought process about how the world works—their frame of reality.

Mental models allow us to predict how things work. They are cognitive constructs built on beliefs, assumptions, and past experiences. But a person’s mental model is a perception of how a system functions, not necessarily how it actually may work.

For instance, say you come into your house in the US on a cold day. To get warmed up quickly, you turn the thermostat way up. Your assumption is that the higher the thermostat setting is, the more heat will come out.

But an American thermostat does not work like a faucet valve. It’s more like a switch: the heat goes on or off depending on whether the set temperature has been reached (see Figure 13-1). In this scenario, your mental model of how the system works is wrong. The room won’t get warmer faster if you turn the temperature setting up. Instead, the heater will simply stay on longer, until the house reaches the desired temperature.

FIGURE 13-1. Thermostats in the US are more like switches than faucets.

The lesson for providers of products ...

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