Posted by: bbannan | February 16, 2011

Contextual Inquiry and Task Analysis:Capturing Mental Models – Cielo

In Chapter 8, Kuniavsky helps us determine if Contextual Inquiry and Task Analysis are appropriate methods to use in our User Researchh Plan. In this posting, I would like to explore the use of these two research methods to capture and understand the users’ mental model, defined by Wikipedia thus: “A mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person’s intuitive perception about their own acts and their consequences. Our mental models help shape our behaviour and define our approach to solving problems (akin to a personal algorithm) and carrying out tasks.” Mental models caught my interest because it is easy enough to observe users on the job or in school or to ask them to break down their tasks into processes, procedures, and steps since these are overt and observable. Mental models, on the other hand, are intangible
, and therefore more challenging to capture.

Each time we create a product for others to use, be it a lesson, a mobile learning application, or even a simple set of instructions, how many times have we wished that we could get inside the head of our users so that we could be sure that we are meeting their needs? From the other side, how many times have we exclaimed to ourself “How did the creator know that this is just what I needed – did they happen to read my mind?” upon discovering a new and useful product or service?

Indi Young, a consultant of web applications interaction and navigation design, created this mental model of a cat (, by asking cat owners to interpret the underlying motivations of their pet’s behavior. Although the example is amusing and light-hearted, it gives us a concrete idea of how we can create a mental model of our target users. Notice also the product/service ideas that are displayed in the lower half of the diagram. Positioning the ideas below the specific motivation/behavior underlines the direct relationship between understanding human (or in this case feline) behavior and designing products or services that respond to, or are in line with the motivation/behavior.

Common sense, you might say, but as we all know, common sense is not so common. If it were common, why would the latest version of the super-popular iPhone have display and reception problems? One would think that reception is a basic and must-have feature of any cell phone, iPhone or not.

For those of you interested in capturing mental models, you could take time to watch Indi Young’s video “Digging Beyond User Preferences” which you can view at (Warning: the video is long, but worth it, and be patient as she gets introduced as the speaker). You will hear about some concepts (e.g., personas) that we touched on last semester and new ideas that we can use for the current term.

It will be interesting to hear from you and read your postings – this area of study is so rich in material and ties up with much of what we have learned in our previous courses.



  1. Cielo,

    Very interesting post and nice accompaning youtube video (BTW the mental model of the cat link did not work). This construct of getting inside the mind of the user during contextual inquiry makes a lot of sense if we are to understand why they (user) do what they do. The question I have is how do we do this?

    I suppose one technique we could use is to ask the user to talk out what they are doing and why. This could interfer somewhat with the natural use process, but would certainly allow a glimpse of their mental model. This technique is being done in other contexts, such as in cognitive apprenticeships where the expert is expected to not only show the apprentice what to do, but explain simultaneously what the cognitive steps are to accomplishing a task (e.g. what mental strategies/data considerations were employed to solve a problem).


  2. Jesse, thanks for the heads up on the cat mental model link. Try copying this and pasting it onto your browser address bar – it worked for me when I did it that way:

    I’m glad you brought up the similarity to Cognitive Apprenticeship aspect because that is one of my favorite topics and the mental model exercise did remind me of it. The difference is that in CA, verbalizing the cognitive steps results in the apprentice or novice learning the skill while in Task Analysis and Contextual Inquiry, the goal is more to get inside the mental processes of the learner.

    With regards to the question how do we get inside the mind of the user, the video gives some very practical suggestions but there is also a lot of material online that gives more ideas.

  3. Very applicable and informative video Cielo.

    When you think of it designing a great product is an extremely difficult task in that you have to be very egoless, particularly in the earliest stages. You can’t let your mental model, perceptions or preconceived ideas determine your path, and you have to make certain that no one on your team is doing that either. I liked the graph Young used where she showed the effects of talk versus the cost of change over the development time of a product. Common sense, as you point out, that the talking should be front loaded in the process but for some reason we tend to not naturally do that, or at least not “enough”. Young also says you have to start somewhere so you have to develop a hypothesis and then start your generative research but you need to change your hypothesis once you have the results of the analysis of this research.

    An interesting thing to think about though, does everyone have the potential to be able to do a non-judgmental contextual inquiry/analysis? Is it a talent that has to be somewhat innate, or is it a skill that can be learned? Listening skills are so important in this process, and some just aren’t naturally good listeners. Listening for understanding, able to let go of personal opinion, knowing what questions to ask, good documentation skills, having a good sense of what direction you should go based on what you are learning from your research subjects, etc – kind of daunting when you think of it!

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful feedback, Debbie. In answer to the question you posed, yes, I believe that everyone has the potential to be a good listener and that good listening skills can be taught, even to those who are not naturally good listeners. In Jared Spool’s article where he talks about the five indispensable skills for UX Mastery,, it is clear that good listening underlies each of the five skills.

    I’ve always believed that the analyze and design phases, whether it be for course, web site, or software development requires the same skills. In our podcasting class I had interviewed a business analyst expert who gave the following three tips: talk less, listen more, and write everything down. As course designers, our end product can only benefit from this advice. To emphasize the reverse, we’ve had three people let go from our company in the past couple of months and looking at the performance problems of these employees, they had one thing in common – the inability to listen to co-workers, managers, and worse, the client.

    If I may quote one last source, Rebecca Shafir in her book The Zen of Listening, talks about “getting into a person’s movie”. The book is a good resource for exercises, activities, and strategies to improve awareness.

  5. Cielo,

    Your post is very throught-provoking and fascinating. This was my favorite statement in your posting, “Each time we create a product for others to use, be it a lesson, a mobile learning application, or even a simple set of instructions, how many times have we wished that we could get inside the head of our users so that we could be sure that we are meeting their needs?” This thought enters my head on a weekly basis.
    For me, instructional design is challenging because you are trying to meet the needs of many different learners. It is very challenging to think about all the mental models of the learners and design a product that meets all of their needs. Add to this, the time, resource, and budget constraints and it becomes a greater challenge, albeit an enjoyable one!
    I really enjoyed Indi Young’s video “Digging Beyond User Preferences.” Her six guidelines for conducting interviews were really interesting. She seems to reinforce what Kuniavsky says in Chapter 9 to some extent. Although he is talking about focus groups, he really tries to emphasize how the moderator needs to be a good listener as well as a good faciliator in these sessions to make sure the participants are using their own words and their thoughts are being recorded accurately. This seems to reinforce the points Indi Young made in the video about conducting effective interviews.
    As far as mental models are concerned, I see tremendous benefits in trying to develop mental models. Although, I think one challenge is gathering the exact information the person/user is conveying while oberving or interviewing them. There seems to be a lot of advice about not leading the user or trying to insert yourself into their process so you can accurately capture their mental process. At the same time, I think ithe desinger has to be sure that the interview is directed/lead in a way that captures their mental process accurately. I guess it’s striking a balance betweeen being a observer and a facilitator of the information gathering process.
    Do you think a designer has to strike this balance or another balance when conducting contextual inquiry?
    Thanks for your fantastic post.

  6. Andrew, funny you should ask that last question. Referring back to the link to Jared Spool’s five indispensable skills in user research (the link is posted in my response to Debbie) – check out the fifth skill – that of facilitator!

    And I agree with you that the designer has to strike a good balance and be in essence a facilitator. Two weeks ago we held a needs analysis with a group of corporate representatives from different regions in the US. It was really tough drawing the line between keeping them within the agenda and letting their mental process reveal itself! And, as Debbie points out, we are not born with these skills necessarily although some may be better listeners and facilitators than others. There is hope though because as designers we can definitely grow in these areas!

  7. I love that cat mental model doc. The “Wake up my human to feed me” part reminds me of this hilarious animation:

    The part that struck me about contextual inquiry in Kuniavsky is how he says that, ideally, it would be the first step in every development cycle. Many times the initial idea for a product, service, or activity comes from business/educational goals or problem statements (from the client’s point of view). But how many times do we look at how people actually do things in context and use those observations to *generate* some potential problems and opportunities?

    As you mention, in the cat mental model doc, she’s mapped products or product ideas directly to parts of the model. I don’t know what order it was done in, but I can see how this would be a useful process for coming up with new ideas, as opposed to coming up with a solution for a problem that’s already been defined for you — whether it’s the root cause or not.

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