How mirroring people’s mental models unleashes superpowers


The most satisfying part of my role as a Product Designer is when we release something that helps our customers become heroes at their jobs. When I help reveal or amplify people’s superpowers, I feel connected to the meaning of my work.

There are lots of ways to do that through new features, better reliability, integrations and so on, but I often forget one of the most powerful levers for bringing out those innate strengths of our customers: understanding and reflecting their mental models.

This year we redesigned our Campaign builder to show non-linear structure and it has revealed the creativity of our customers in ways I never expected. With this new model in the product, they are creating the most complex and imaginative Campaigns we have seen in the history of CIO.

Spending time on the models in your product can unleash people’s superpowers and here’s how.


What are mental models?

A mental model is how a person imagines or understands a certain concept. How do they expect a concept to be represented? How do they expect to interact with it?

These models aren’t based on facts, efficiency, or how we would represent a concept in computer science. Humans, by nature, build mental models based on experiences, particularly social experiences with people we care about. In the world of B2B software, mental models often come from previous experience with digital and non-digital tools, and the connection those tools have with influential people in our community.

Check out this video if you want to learn more about mental models.


How does mirroring mental models unleash superpowers?

If we only represent concepts in the most efficient and rational models, our products can become unusable. When product models aren’t close enough to mental models, people need to utilize more cognitive load to engage with our product, which can lead to negative outcomes like:

  • They abandon the product
  • They take a long time to complete tasks
  • They don’t feel confident in what’s going to happen
  • They feel embarrassed or incompetent
  • They produce lower quality task results

On the other hand, when product models do reflect mental models, we see our customers thrive because their cognitive energy can go to the inputs they control rather than understanding a new model. This can lead to positive outcomes like:

  • They need less time to get up and running
  • They feel confident in what’s going to happen
  • They feel empowered and supported
  • They look forward to using the product
  • They produce higher quality task results

Freeing up customers’ cognitive load allows them to put more mental energy toward the task they hope to accomplish. It opens them up to using cognitive energy for creative and complex decision-making.


How to apply these ideas to product design

1. Notice feedback that relates to mental models

Our customers use our Campaign builder feature to create personalized automated messaging Campaigns like an onboarding or winback series.

We’ve received feedback that our Campaign builder was complicated, unintuitive, and hard to understand ever since I started working at Customer.io in 2018. These complaints weren’t about the functionality, but our customers’ ability to understand and work with the model present in our product.

At the same time, we had potential customers asking if we had a “visual” Campaign builder. We didn’t. Ours was a linear list. We noticed that these customers were choosing other messaging platforms for the visual aspect of their Campaign builders even though ours had the same functionality.

As you can see in this screenshot of our old interface, Campaigns were represented in a linear list. If our customers wanted to personalize how different groups of people flowed through the Campaign, they had to put conditions on each step. This isn’t how people imagine or draw Campaign workflows.

2. Find out the true mental model

Once we understood that our model was confusing people, we asked several customers to draw out their Campaigns and found remarkable similarities between the drawings we got back.

Most of the diagrams had:

  • Branches based on questions they wanted to ask about the people flowing through like: Does the person live in the U.S.? Are they new to our product? Have they read the other messages in this Campaign?
  • Nested decisions— not just one decision point but many
  • Multiple exit points
  • Color-coding to show the difference between messages, delays, and decisions
Recreation of a customer’s diagram

The people we talked to told us they had to draw out their Campaigns before they translated them into our product. They were thinking “This is what I want. Now how do I make that in Customer.io?”

For example, here’s how they were drawing a simple workflow decision point vs. how they would’ve created it in our Campaign builder.

3. Redesign using the mental model

After nailing down the most common workflow mental model of our customers, we redesigned the workflow builder to fit. This was as simple as using the actual images they drew us to create a new interface and then adding functionality to help them branch the workflows with decision points.

We got feedback from more than 15 customers throughout the process, which helped us make decisions like:

  1. We will determine the layout of the structure rather than allowing people to move nodes wherever they want. Since multiple people work on the same Campaigns, this will keep all Campaigns consistent and readable by all team members.
  2. We will represent the direction of the workflow as top-to-bottom instead of left-to-right because that’s how customers imagine people moving through a Campaign.
  3. We will use color to help people read the workflow, indicating different types of nodes/blocks.
  4. We will make the workflow builder interactive and tactile because people think of it as a canvas for creation.
Our new Visual Workflow Builder, based on our customers’ mental model.

4. Measure the results of changing the model

At the time of this change, we didn’t have the advanced product analytics that we have now, so we measured the success of this project through anecdotal evidence like written feedback from customers and insights from our Customer Success team. Here’s what they said:

Less questions

People don’t need as much help building Campaigns with multiple concurrent flows because the visualization is easier to read.

Consolidation of Campaigns

People used to separate out related flows because they couldn’t keep track of them in one Campaign. Now they can set up a branch to create dozens of custom paths.

Increase in creativity

We’ve seen more people experimenting with sending different content based on their customer’s actions or data because they feel confident in how the Campaign will flow. That’s the goal of our product — to get marketers to send their customers messaging that is personal and valuable — so seeing them realize the full value or our Campaign builder is a huge win for our business.


What I learned

If you want to unleash people’s superpowers through design:

1) Pay attention to feedback that calls your product “unintuitive” or “confusing”. It means people are wasting some of their cognitive load to understand your models.

2) Understand your customers’ mental models by asking them to explain and draw concepts.

3) Use their words and drawings to build a product that mirrors those mental models (unless you’re trying to teach a new mental model, which is a design challenge in and of itself).

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