How Users Understand New Products

An insight into one of our favourite product talks of the last year.

At Prodlytic HQ, a short walk from the Canvas 2017 venue, one of our favourite product talks of the last year is “How users understand new products” by Michelle Fitzpatrick, a product manager at Intercom.

As a team building an analytics tool for product people, our job is giving you the data you need to help bridge the gap between how people use your product and what your product does. Michelle’s talk perfectly explains how these things are connected in product design/management.

In anticipation of the undoubtedly insightful talks coming at Canvas we decided to share Michelle’s talk, as well as breaking down the key points.

Building products is all about making toast

People think about the same thing in different ways. Just ask a room full of people to describe the process of making toast and you’ll find everyone makes toast in a slightly different way. For example, people might focus on the mechanics, the supply chain, or the most optimal process of toasting bread. People think about your product in different ways too: they all have their own idea of how it works. These are people’s different mental models of understanding things.

The many ways of making toast

Mental models explained

Michelle defines a mental model as “how someone believes something works.” Mental models are a form of schema, a group of ideas we all have that help us explain how the world works.

Different people, different ways of understanding.

Each individual has a truly unique mental model as their assumptions and experiences affect the models they create. And we can all have multiple mental models about the same thing. So everyone who uses your product sees it in a unique way, and even in multiple unique ways.

> Mental model: how someone believes something works ?

But what about how something actually works? That’s a system model.

The system model, toast, and software

The system model contains the fundamental aspects of something. The system model of making toast in a toaster is (bread + toaster) + (heat + time) = toast ?

> System model: how something actually works ♻

The system model of toast, completed.

Software explains its system model (how the software works) through the UI. When mental models of how people think something works and the system model of how it actually works match, a product seems intuitive ? But when there’s a disconnect between the two it makes a product hard to use ?

For products to succeed they need to find the balance between how people perceive the product and how it actually works.

How can you understand your customers’ mental models?

Explaining something new is hard ? People understand new things by mapping them onto existing categories or mental models. When those mental models don’t explain the new thing they can find it confusing. So how can you understand your customers’ mental models?

When people encounter a new product they have three questions:

  1. What is it?
  2. What does it do?
  3. What value will it deliver?

Your product and its UI need to answer these questions. You can do this by asking your own questions and doing what all product people know is the most important thing: talking to customers.

  1. Ask people how they think your product works / observe how they use something
  2. Ask people to explain why they think your product works like that – listen to the language they use
  3. Pull out the commonalities and build based on those

Going back to toast, there’s usually two main mental models: toast and grill. If you’re building a toaster, someone who’s mental toast-making model revolves around a grill will be disconnected from your product. You need to bridge that gap because you can’t sell a toaster to someone who makes toast in a grill.

Filling the Void

There are two main ways of closing the gap between how your product actually works and how people think it works.

1. Educate customers. Use data to understand what people are doing wrong and right in your product and craft content and onboarding that helps them overcome sticking points.

To use the grill-toaster example again, you’d educate people about why toasters are better than grills for making toast.

2. Make your product conform more to their mental model.

Google is good at aligning what their products do with people’s mental models. Just take a look at the names of its products:

  • Google Drive > like a hard drive
  • Google Mail > it’s email
  • Google Calendar > it’s a calendar

For software products metaphors can be powerful hooks for helping people understand your product (a bit like the toast example here). Michelle gives two good examples.

  • iOS wallet could have used QR for tickets. Instead Apple designed it so they’d look like physical tickets
  • The NEST thermostat looks like a real, physical thermostat; and also mirrors the physical NEST thermostat

When people use iOS wallet or NEST for the first time they have a point of reference in these real-world metaphors, which aids their understanding of the product. As a result they find it more intuitive to use and are more likely to continue using it because the gap between the product and the mental model has been reduced ?

Product: closing the gap between mental and system models

At its core, Michelle says, building a product is about bridging the gaps between mental models and system models. Do this and customers can see how things really work. With analytics, strong software product design theory, and qualitative data it should be possible to build a product people find intuitive to use.

See you at Canvas!

Don’t worry if you missed Canvas 2017, we’re fast approaching Canvas 2018! This year it’ll be held at the Birmingham Rep on October 4th and we have 8 insightful talks for you ranging from disruptive startups to big organisations. Don’t miss it!