Online mental models that drive digital experience

The web has been around for a relatively brief period in human history, but our minds are already quite set on how websites should be constructed and how they look. Although it might be tempting to break away from common website design conventions, you should consider tempering this thought! Research on digital behavior shows that we engage better with familiar designs that fit well with our fixed Mental Models.

Mental models, or schemes, are a collection of concepts that we create, to help us explain complex ideas, shape actions and behavior, focus our attention and solve problems. Our brain is wired to identify familiar patterns around us, and naturally, we prefer attaching to patterns that led to successful interactions in the past. We rely on our mental models, as an organized structure that helps us process new information. We have a mental model for just about any aspect of our life, and already, we have an online mental model for every kind of digital experience.

Familiarity breeds… Content!

When we visit a website, we apply our online mental models subconsciously; we have a mental model of what a product page should look like and where the "Add to Cart" should be positioned. We look for the Support or Contact Us links where we found them before, and perceive square-shaped elements that contain text as clickable.
The more online experiences we have, the richer and more detailed our mental models become, and the more we prefer what we already encountered. Once created, mental models have a tendency to remain unchanged, even when there is contradictory information. Yes, we are that schematic and fixated.

Non-clickable elements, that fits our mental model of clickable, causes confusion.

In an analysis of a global e-Commerce website, we saw that Call-To-Actions (CTA's) of similar functionality, had different designs on the different pages. The move heatmaps showed users behavior of confusion: Scrolling up and down searching where to click. With online mental models in mind, we recommended change all CTA's to have the same consistent appearance and position. Once the change was implemented, the customer saw a dramatic jump in conversion.

The Psychology of User Friendly

Once our online mental model has been created, a Top-Down process occurs and automatically flows down to a lower level of function guided by prior knowledge and set expectations about how the website works and where to find information. This quicker recognition results in feeling more familiar and comfortable with the website, even after a brief exposure.

When we encounter a new online experience that does not align with any of our mental models, such as when we use a social network or a dating website for the first time, we need to activate a Bottom-Up process in which our senses become dominant and provide information to our brain, in order to become familiar with the new structure and usability. This bottom-up process requires investing more attention and effort on our part, which we are not willing to give when we have an alternative as an existing mental model we can use for this function.

Our brain likes to identify familiar patterns around us. The more familiar we are with something, the less cognitive effort we invest in reacting. This explains why users reject new designs, even when it helps them accomplish their tasks more efficiently. For example, one of our clients introduced a horizontal layout of a form with a more efficient design compared to the vertical long forms we are used to filling out. Move heatmaps showed that users were getting confused and form analytics showed that they were spending more time filling out the form.

A horizontal layout of a form, that requires more attention and effort even though the layout is more efficient.

The results of a recent usability test shows how mere exposure to a website influences how we evaluate the aesthetics of the user interface and our attitude towards it. Because familiarity enables easy mental processing, it feels fluent. We often equate the feeling of fluency with likability. We often infer positive feelings when a stimulus feels easy to process.

When applied to the online world, if visitors cannot rely on their previous experience, they will not think a website is innovative; rather, they will wonder why things are not where they are “supposed to be”. Designing webpages according to users’ mental models accelerates orientation, makes the location of object on the page easier to remember and affects user interactions. The more established the design and navigation patterns, the faster the elements are recognized, making them easier to use.

Analyzing a form page for a client, we watched visitor recordings of users filling out their personal details in a classical registration form. Users demonstrated a schematic behavior when they kept clicking on the empty form fields, waiting for the common auto-complete to fill in their personal details. Even after filling out the first two fields and realizing that auto fill function was not applicable, they kept clicking on the empty fields throughout the form.

The Power of Prototypes

Not only do we have a mental model for the website’s layout, our brain produces mental models for each category. When we are exposed to a new website, if it follows the familiar scheme for its category such as online shopping, media, or banking, we are able to identify the website type after a brief exposure because we connect it to an existing online mental model and already have a general idea on how to use it.  We are used to the Amazon prototype where the products are arranged horizontally. When one of our retail clients launched a page with products arranged vertically, session playbacks revealed a surprising pattern of behavior - the users kept scrolling horizontally even though it didn’t match the layout

Amazon contributed to create a metal model of horizontal product display

Curb Your Creativity

We are built to be energy effective with our cognitive skills. Once we establish a mental model, it becomes our default due to a faster, and energy saving, recognition process. In the course of this time, our minds have become set on the structure of websites and web pages. If users cannot rely on their cognitive prior knowledge from using other websites, they will not have the ideal customer experience, and that will affect the conversion.

When optimizing a website, ensure that the design is consistent and matches common online mental models. When a website conveys a familiar and fluent feeling that fits with an online Scheme, it results in a user-friendly interface that delivers better digital customer experience.


Check out for more recent research in the field of Web Psychology to have a better and profound understanding of Digital Customer Experience.

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