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Mental Models vs Conceptual Models for UX Design - What is the Difference, When to Use Which?

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In this article, we are going to cover Mental Models vs Conceptual Models. Mental models and conceptual models are used in user experience design for different purposes. What is the difference between Mental Models and Conceptual Models? When should you use mental models in UX design? When should you use conceptual models in UX Design? We will answer these questions and more with this article!

What are Mental Models?

A mental model is a representation of the world that is created in the mind. Mental models help us to understand and interact with the world around us. Mental models can be used to represent our understanding of objects, people, or situations. Mental models can be used to solve problems, make predictions and make decisions.

Identifying and understanding mental models of people helps create solutions to their problems that are more usable and easier to learn. Often people learn through physical analogies for tasks. For example, scroll bars or scrolling with your finger on touch devices. You drag up to move the digital content up, as you would with a piece of paper sitting on a desk. Another example are recycle or trash bins on computers. Both examples match constructs in our physical space, but the actual underlying programming and processing is a reality that is completely different. Our mental model is throwing away or moving around documents with physical movements and trash bins, this helps us remember what we need to do for those tasks. The alternative would be to know how to execute code or even lower processes to do these actions.

What are Conceptual Models?

A conceptual model is an abstract, high-level model of a system. Conceptual models can be used to represent any system, from a computer system to a business process. A conceptual model is not meant to be implemented, but rather to help you understand the system and how its components interact.

From "Activity Modeling and Behavior Modeling, C.H. Kung, A. Solvberg" a conceptual model has four fundamental objectives:

  1. Enhance an individual's understanding of the representative system.
  2. Facilitate efficient conveyance of system details between stakeholders.
  3. Provide a point of reference for system designers to extract system specifications.
  4. Document the system for future reference and provide a means for collaboration.

Although conceptual models are not meant to be implemented, they play an important part in the system's development. It can clarify system properties, requirements, and events that need to be addressed.

Mental Models vs Conceptual Models

Now that we know what mental models and conceptual models are, let's take a look at the differences between them. Mental models are used to understand objects, people, or situations. They can be used to solve problems and make decisions. Conceptual models are abstract, high-level models of systems. Conceptual models help you understand how the system's components interact with each other.

Mental models are more specific than conceptual models and provide more detail about the object or situation being modeled. Mental models can be implemented while conceptual models cannot.

When should you use Mental Models in UX Design?

Mental model should be used when understanding user behavior is important . When designing an interface, it is important to understand why users do what they do. Mental models can help you with this by providing a framework for thinking about user behavior and how it will impact your design. Mental model also works well in situations where the solution is not known, but there is an issue that needs to be solved.

Mental models are also useful when users are having problems with a task in your design. By discovering how your users think about the task they are trying to accomplish you can better fit your UI and workflow to match their mental model. These should be real users, not internal stakeholders unless they are your actual users.

When should you use Conceptual Models in UX Design?

Conceptual models are used when designing interactions between components of systems . For example: conceptual model would be useful if we were building a chatbot or some other system that had more than one component (i.e.: multiple modules). Conceptual modeling helps us think through all of the different flows and possible paths while keeping each part separate from each other, which makes things easier to maintain and update.

Conceptual models are a good tool when dealing with a complex system that has "a lot of moving parts" or interactions between components. The model can provide a nice short hand for quickly understanding what requirements are needed in a project and to find gaps. If you are helping design a conceptual model, be sure to involve stakeholders and other team members that are knowledge experts across the model. They will help catch gaps or misunderstandings in the model.


In conclusion, mental models are used to understand objects, people, or situations while conceptual models are used to understand the interactions between components of a system. Mental models provide more detail than conceptual models and can be implemented while conceptual models cannot. When should you use mental model in UX design? When trying to understand user behavior or when the solution is not known but there is an issue that needs to be solved. When should you use a concept model in UX design? When designing interactions between components of systems. Thank for reading! If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments below!

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