How accurate mental models can lead to successful products

November 22, 2019 4:19 pm

How accurate mental models can lead to successful products

We’re going to use Amazon Prime as a case study to demonstrate how an accurate mental model can lead to a phenomenally successful product.

Mental models are a way of understanding users thought processes and their relationship to current products and the world. They can be used to develop, create and improve products through a deeper understanding of the user and their behaviour.

The key to a successful mental model is empathy, being able to place yourself in the mindset of the user. It is not only about understanding the process of how the user will do something, but how they want to do it, and why they want to do it in that way. This understanding can build a fully functional model of the users’ motivations. Once the motivations are fully understood a useful product can be developed.

The benefits of an accurate mental model

Let us use Amazon Prime as a thought experiment on the difference a successful mental model can make. (for this, we have tried to reverse engineer the process based on the current services Amazon offer).

In this example we will think about the process of online shopping without Amazon Prime. Thinking step by step through users’ actions and their motivations.

In this instance we can understand actions and motivations through user testing, allowing a user to shop as they normally would, then talking to the user about what they did and their reasons for doing so. The end result may resemble a chart like the one below. This chart is a simplified vision of user shopping behaviour.

We have divided the shop into two broad processes. The process of choosing an item, and the process of purchasing the item. Each of these tasks could be broken down further, for example “scan PDP” includes behaviours such as checking images, looking at star ratings etc.

Before reading ahead take a look at the chart again, and think about what the users’ core motivation may be, and the simplest way to express it.

Have you done it? Do you promise? Okay, read on.

Below is a list of different potential motivations and desires the user may have as they shop.

  • Get the ‘right’ item.
  • Get a cost effective item.
  • Avoid paying too much in delivery.
  • Ensuring the item will arrive on time.
  • Compare the above for similar items.

We could synthesise this into “the user wants the best purchase experience”. On the face of it this is an almost absurdly simple result from the work. I mean, of course they want the best purchase experience.

The question then would be how do we give the user the best purchase experience. The answer may lie in studying the users behaviour as they shop. The observed process would seem to suggest that comparison shopping is a behaviour the user engages with.

Why Amazon won

We think the key element and the reason Prime was so wildly successful was that they truly understood the users’ mental models. It would be easy to look at the above process and this “okay, the users are selecting and comparing a wide variety of products. What users want is to compare, thus what we need to do is make it easier for users to compare items, we’ll start testing ways to make comparison easier straight away”

There was of course an alternative interpretation, which is that users want a reliable way of understanding whether a product is worth buying, and whether this matches the synthesis of waiting time, cost, and reliability.

So the model developed is “I need an item, that’s of reasonable quality, a price I can afford, and will arrive in good time”

And the best way to achieve that model is with a service that provides those, but also with a symbol and brand that signifies which exact products meet those needs. The user has the security of an Amazon “branded” product, they know it will arrive in the very near future, and they don’t need to worry about delivery cost as an addition because that already included within their Amazon Prime subscription.

This shows how important an empathetic and deep understanding of users mental models can be to the design process. Without them you may end up designing a plaster to put on the core issue without solving the core issue itself.

eBay went forward trading on the hypothesis that people want to freely barter with each other and make choices, Amazon Prime went forward trading on the hypothesis that people want a streamlined process that does not require that much thought.

These hypothesis can be tested through interviews. Or further developed through extensive testing to map the mental model to the product itself to ensure that the roll out and creation successfully meets the user need and is actually usable. However none of that is possible without a working mental model in the first place.

A mental model is at its core the root reason for doing something – what an individual is trying to accomplish regardless of the tools used.


When developing a mental model it’s important to stay open minded. An accurate model can ensure that you’re solving the right problem, rather than simply putting a hiding a broader problem.

This is how successful products are developed, an accurate mental model can solve problems that users did not even know were problems.

The best way to develop an accurate mental model will always be research, observing user behaviour and interviewing them to understand their core motivations. From there the model can be developed, and the successful product follows.