Mental Modelling.

This short insight is from of our Methods series: A discussion of useful working practices and ideas for better ideation and execution.  We discuss what each method is, why they are useful, and how to utilize them.


A simple reference model that maps out an individuals thought processes about a particular real-life scenario, such as their approach and behaviours when interacting with a particular interface.


To help designers anticipate how design decisions might facilitate future behaviours.


  1. Create one three-columned table per persona. Label the columns “Past,” “Present” and “Future.” These columns refer to the user behaviour.
  2. In the 'Present' column, write the current user behaviours and pain points that are related to the project. You should list only one behaviour per row.
  3. In the 'Past' column, write the products, services, features, and/or interfaces that the user encounters as they go about what’s listed in the 'Present' column.
  4. In the 'Future' column, write the possible products, services, features, and/or interface elements that in the future might change behaviours and pain points in the 'Present' column.

Further Considerations.

We have described the process to analyse a particular task in depth, with different personas. Mental mapping at this level is undoubtedly useful, but also has a wider usage at a macro-level.  

Design thinking methods utilise this mental mapping format in various ways. Analysing how past, present, and future variables can affect behaviour is useful—but we can expand this to full action sets. If we look at a chain of tasks we may find new opportunities for intelligent design.

For example if we consider the process required to get ready for work, we may list multiple short but necessary tasks:

  • Brush Teeth
  • Take a Shower
  • Get Dressed
  • Have Breakfast
  • Being Commute to work

We could pick any of these action sets, and explore the necessary tasks within them—and importantly what tools may be required to complete them. We can't brush our teeth properly without a toothbrush and toothpaste, ideally water, and a mirror is advantageous. When it comes to getting dressed, many might just describe that process as:

  1. Open closet.
  2. Decide what clothes to wear.
  3. Put on chosen clothes.
  4. Close closet.

Step 1 and 4 require the closet to store clothes. The clothes themselves need to have been acquired too. However, step 2 could serve as a point of design opportunity.

A clever designer may notice that at present, step 2 is entirely a cognitive decision without aid.  Some people can be indecisive, or unsure of fashion trends. By creating an application or product that guides and inspires user decisions, the process of getting ready for work could be made easier. To elaborate further, imagine you had an app that digested multiple data sources:

  • Daily forecast, whether it'll be hot, cold, wet, or dry.
  • Recent fashion trends.
  • General industry expectations.
  • Your calendar, for scheduled meetings.

This data could then sync to your available wardrobe to find the best combinations for the day. It'd ensure you weren't too uncomfortable due to the temperatures or weather, whilst also keeping you looking professional and fashionable.

All of these considerations and product musings can come through such a simple idea as mapping out user journeys, finding key opportunity, and then performing mental mapping to build a robust solution.