A mental model is a concept in a person’s brain; it’s how they imagine a system works. It’s based on their past experiences and influences how they make decisions in their current experiences. For example, a user that has used a watch will have ideas about how an Apple Watch will work. Additionally, if they’ve used an iPhone to compose a text message using the Messages app, they’ll have a mental model of what the texting experience on an Apple Watch using the Messages app will be.

The challenge we face as user experience designers is achieving an interface that matches a user’s mental model; that way there won’t be a disconnect between how the user imagines the interface will work, and how it actually works.

Referring back to our Apple Watch texting app (Messages), we have to respect the work that Apple did on making the watch app be intuitive. They designed an app that barely works like any app users have interacted with before - and only kind-of-like the iPhone Messages app. To use the iPhone app, a user types out a message on a digital keyboard on their phone or iPad. However, on the watch, there is no digital keyboard - so the user has to figure out how to use the app in a different way.

And yet, the design Apple has implemented does seem to align itself with user’s mental models. Personally, when I approached the app for the first time, I realized that I had 1 option to get started: I had to do a “long-press” action. At the time, long-press was pretty unheard of and not yet a convention I was accustomed to doing ever, on any device. But Apple had successfully onboarded me as to how that gesture would be an option at times. So even though there is no indicator in the Messages list view, I intuited that I should try that gesture. And I was rewarded by the succeeding steps in the flow. Apple has applied other common patterns that help first time users adjust to the new interface, such as graying out the send button until a recipient has been chosen and a message has been composed.

Summarily, user experience designers can apply the lessons Apple has applied to their Watch design when designing our own experiences. Personally, I’m a huge fan of the grayed-out button pattern and apply it regularly; similarly, onboarding is vital for innovating. In my app Eat Sleep Poop, I saw a big jump in user retention after improving my onboarding screens to better communicate the innovative pattern I’ve implemented on the app’s home screen.

Related Articles:

  1. The Secret to Designing an Intuitive UX, by Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D.
  2. Mental Models, by Jacob Nielsen