Mental Model Mis-steps

Traveling is a wonderful way to bring in to focus just how much of your daily life is beholden to a mental model of how things work. On a recent trip back to the UK, a country from which I moved some 7 years ago, I picked up on a series of UK specific cues that my brain mis-interpreted as it varied from what I am now used to in America.

As I was driving round a small town, I turned on to street seemingly only wide enough for one car. On the left side of the road was a car parked facing me. I panicked, thinking I was going the wrong way up a one-way street (remember, they drive on the left in Blighty). It was in fact a two-way street, but it reminded me that in the UK you do not have to park facing the same way as the traffic is moving. Subconsciously my brain had established a shortcut to determining if a street was one-way that wasn’t by looking at the road signs. Instead I was subconsciously taking note of the direction of the parked cars. I had a mental model of what a one-way street looked like.

Another interesting example was how UK services, particularly web services, advertised in the mass media. The trend in the UK is for services to use a very conversational tone, along with slang and regional vernacular. Services such as wonga.com and confused.com have an almost purposefully scruffy look and tone to their brand. UK audiences seem to react well to this, and I would gamble that part of the reason why is as a reaction against many years of BBC-style, regionally agnostic Queens English that most everyone north of the Watford Gap saw as ‘posh’ and ‘southern’. Having been Americanized over the last 7 years, that goes against my mental model for what a trustworthy service looks and sounds like. Services are advertised with a higher degree of slick and polish in the US, and for the most part are still regionally agnostic in tone so as to achieve the broadest appeal without falling into stereotypes. I had a mental model for what a trustworthy service should look and sound like, and my immediate reaction against this opposite tone in the UK was negative.

I characterize these jolts to my subconscious understanding of the world as a ‘mental model mis-step’. They are short-sharp shocks to your perception. They unsettle you, sometimes just for a split second, but noticeably nonetheless. It’s like tripping on an uneven sidewalk (pavement). It throws you off your stride and you lose your cool. You may even look around to see if anyone noticed. It can be distinctly unsettling. This reiterated to me how important a well designed user engagement flow is for online interactions. To interrupt a user in pursuit of their goal, even to possibly help them, is to present an opportunity when the user may lose their cool and temporarily feel insecure in their convictions. You must clear and smooth that sidewalk. Understand who is walking down it and where they want to go, and the number of people who succeed should increase.