Product Design | User Experience

Designing Using Mental Models

Designing the right product fit faster, using Mental Models

Understanding how customers think and see their tasks in the world helps your product design be more efficient, usable, marketable and commercial successful. (2014 - 2015)

An excerpt from a mental model, showing some of the tasks and details involved in ordering business cards online.

An excerpt from a mental model, showing some of the tasks and details involved in ordering business cards online.



A well constructed Mental Model is a powerful tool for your business. It can greatly improve the odds of your product being a commercial success. This is because it focuses on how your customers think about and approach tasks your product intends to support. It raises the chances of your product being easy to use and understand, and one which customers will enjoy using.

A strong Mental Model quickly becomes a flexible tool across any number of design projects, helping teams situate the context of a customer problem and focus on steps to address it in their new designs. Crucially, it can help prevent team group think, and prevent a team building a product they want to use, but which your customers may not.


An excerpt of some of the triggers that cause a potential customer of MOO to need business cards. Capturing these in this form helps target product and marketing efforts and uncover new areas of opportunity to attract or retain customers.


Customer & Business Challenge

When I started at MOO, the general customer Mental Model used by all teams was simple, but perhaps simplistic. Customers would:

  1. Browse (for a product on category pages of the site)
  2. Build (the chosen business cards or other products in the build tools) and...
  3. Buy (purchase and checkout). 

While it tripped off the tongue, it was too high level, and of little practical value to a design team. It failed to capture any of the things a customer might do or consider *before* or *after* they reached MOO. These extra stages provide direction on customer acquisition marketing messages, and inspiration for new product innovations.


The Approach & My Role

Primarily driven by my Research team, we set about expanding on the existing mental model. Our main aims were:

  1. to understand how MOO customers and non-customers thought about the task of ordering business cards (online and at local printers) and...
  2. to deliver a flexible set of relatable steps that we know real people in the real world take when they needed to order new business cards. 

We did this by interviewing and observing people in several study exercises. We triangulated this with data from other sources in the business, including feedback from our Customer Service team.

We compiled this data into a huge list of the tasks that someone might do when ordering business cards, as well as what triggers them to take such action. Examples include things like:

  • ‘book tickets to a trade show...where I’ll need to have new business cards’
  • ‘think about what artwork I’d like’
  • ‘decide whether I can get the cards printed in time’ etc

 As a team, we made repeated passes to refine and organise this into broad categories that help capture the steps in the processes that many different people would go through to order their business cards.



Product development teams can often face daunting risks when starting a project, particularly regarding unknowns in the market. This can slow teams down, and lose time. The expanded Mental Model we delivered was more actionable by product teams, and helped give them confidence and momentum early in design projects. We shared the new Mental Model with the entire business, including the Executive team. It became a living document used as a reference point, in workshops and particularly towards the beginning of new design projects to help flush out the team’s thinking. It gave the designers and product teams real customer concerns to work with when hypothesising how customers might use new features. It also helped us make quick wins with copy writing to improve usability and conversion of the path the purchase journey.


What I've Learned

This was the first pass many of the team had at making an extensive mental model, and we found the process to be more labour intensive than we’d first expected! That said, when completed and put into practice, we found it valuable for use in the Discovery phase of new design work, and proved very grounding for designers to much more easily understand and appreciate the problem they were helping solve. It was also valuable in flushing out assumptions clearly, and another tool to help different members of a product team, from different backgrounds, more easily reach a shared, debatable, but common understanding of customer needs: the *why* you're building your product or feature the way you are.


Team Credits

Researchers: Hannah Capstick & Terri Herbert
Year: 2014 /  2015