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Influx interview-designer series- indi young- part one

March 3, 2008

Indi Young is one of the founders of Adaptive Path and the author of the recently published book-Mental Models: “Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior”.

We exchanged a few emails and ended up with a fantastic interview.

Here’s Part One.

1. Can you briefly describe your background?

I’ve been a “software designer” for 21 years.  My undergrad degree was in Computer Science.  In those days, there were none of these fun study programs like interaction design.  This was before the Mac and before the desktop metaphor became prevalent.  I have been consulting for 17 years, often helping startups craft their initial offerings and assisting Fortune 500 companies redesign existing architectures.  I teach workshops, act as a team guide for projects, and present at a few conferences.  My book about mental models and alignment with products and services was published in Feb 2008.

2. Explain how the Mental Models process came about?

It has roots in a project I was doing with Visa in the early 90’s.  I was doing task analysis for customer service reps and normalizing their actions when I realized I had a state machine on my hands.  The state machine was helpful to the other software and database developers, but not to the business stakeholders who were guiding the project.  So, over the years, I morphed “task analysis” to the “motivation chart” that you see now, mapped to the ways an organization supports each of the activities.  Now the diagram, essentially an affinity diagram at its heart, is a good visual summary of customer behavior, philosophies, and feelings. Executives and other stakeholders find it understandable and useful.  (For more of the story, see the Appendix B online )

3. What do you think the big differences between thinking about advertising and thinking about the web are?

I’m going to use my imagination here, since the closest I got to understanding advertising is from a mental model I made of media buyers. Advertising is about making a certain segment of people aware of and interested in a product or service. The web is a communications medium.  In general, when you try to communicate, it works best if you know the segment of people you are trying to communicate with so that you can connect with them about what you are saying. Web communication is two-way.  The segment of people can talk back. Most advertising (I *think*) assumes a one-way message. There are lots of things I could say about advertising on the web. You could harness the two-way communication format. (

You could apply the richness of film and radio, if someone acts like they want to spend the time watching something.  You could lessen the amount of time a person spends thinking about your service or product and give them more time to do what they intend to do.  This freedom will make them respect you later because you respected them.  In traditional advertising there seems to be a desperate pitch to the message, begging the listener/reader/watcher to spend some brain time with you.  On the web, that doesn’t have to happen.  (See Seth Godin’s “Permission Marketing” for other ideas)

I’ve found in several mental models for companies selling large software suites that potential customers “distrust salesmen.”  Salesmen have one goal: to sell you the product and increase their commission.  Some sales people tell you they don’t really need to sell you the product, but their happiest end-scenario is still the same: sell the product.  Potential customers have a different goal.  In their mental model, they want to find out the capabilities of the software and at the same time find out what their organization really needs in terms of software, or if some of the needs are really just wishful.  It’s something that each potential customer seems to have to explore in isolation, whereas a lot of the considerations and capabilities and needs are probably very common. No one has leveraged that yet.

4. When you explore Mental Models- it’s clearly a piece of  expansive thinking- you are stretching to really understand the breadth and depth of the totality of experiences- when and how do you decide what the limits are? What role does brand play in this?

Yes, the mental model explores the environment of the user, agnostic to all the tools she uses to do something.  A lot of folks have learned a very limited definition of “mental model” meaning “how a person understands how something works.”  These mental models stretch that definition to “how a person gets something done, no matter which tools she uses.”  Plus, it extends the definition to include matching the services and products an organization offers to discrete parts of what the person is doing to accomplish something.  This is really a step back from the details of the picture to look at the overriding motivations. This level of granularity limits what you put in the mental model.  You ask “why” a lot, but you don’t go into detail about “how” as much. The limits are also defined by the scope of the research.  You might scope your research as, “What does a person do to remodel their kitchen or bathroom?” Or you might choose, “What does a person do to upkeep their home?”  These are two different scopes of the same space, the first one narrower than the second one.  The second one might have a mental space about remodeling, which if you want, you could blow out into its own mental model with the narrowly scoped research.

Brand plays a role this way: customers choose what source to get their service or product from based on a lot of reasons, and brand is one of the reasons. Proximity, price, convenience, habit–those are some of the other reasons.  I’ve often been asked if a mental model could be syndicated. Could a mental model for a bank customer, say, be sold to all banks in an industry?  I don’t know, but my educated guess is, “No,” because customers choose a bank based partially on the perceived “persona” of that bank, or its brand.  I think the motivations for choosing a certain bank will show up as different towers in different banks’ customer mental models.  But I haven’t had the opportunity to test this theory out yet.  It could be true only in a slight way, in which case most of the bank customer mental model would be re-usable from bank to bank.

But to look at the brand question with a different example, let’s look at drivers. The mental model of a driver who really enjoys the art and feel of driving and of performance is probably different than the mental model of the person who needs to transport many kids to various different engagements.  There are different concepts that each of these groups will talk about.  The concept of enjoying the g-force in a turn and appreciating how the tires are in contact with the road would be outside the realm of the person who is thinking about protecting her precious cargo of kids.  The mental models would be different, and the ways you, as a car designer, would support the concepts would differ, too.

Posted by Ed Cotton

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