Mental Models and Usability

Conceptual Models Diagram from Norman, D. A. (1988). The Design of Everyday Things. New York, Basic Books.

Conceptual Models Diagram from Norman, D. A. (1988). The Design of Everyday Things. New York, Basic Books.

In his book, The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman explores methods to design usable objects and systems using everyday objects such as door handles and faucet knobs as examples. Norman emphasizes the role of conceptual models in creating easy to use systems. Any system or device will be easier to use if the user has a good conceptual model of how the system works. It is the designer’s job to create a conceptual model for the system that aligns with users’ mental models or educates users on the model of the system (p.189).

Three different aspects of mental models must be distinguished: the design model, the user’s model, and the system image. The design model is the conceptualization that the designer has in mind. The user’s model is what the user develops to explain the operation of the system. Ideally, the user’s model and the design model are equivalent. However, the user and the designer communicate only through the system itself: its physical appearance, its operation, the way it responds, and the manuals and instructions that accompany it. Thus the system image is critical: the designer must ensure that everything about the product is consistent with and exemplifies the operation of the proper conceptual model (pp. 189-190).

In complex systems aligning these mental models can be challenging. Designers are likely to be experts in how the system works, whereas users may have a limited or incorrect understanding of the complex system. This can create a situation where designers create a system that reflects their expert understanding, not the novice mental model of the user. This type of design error can commonly be seen in websites in which the navigation of the site is based on the org. chart of the business—a system image based on insider view of the business rather than a system image based how website visitors think about the organization or  how they frame the tasks they want to accomplish.

In higher education, programs, curricula, and courses are just a few of the many complex systems that leaders are called to design. University leaders have an insider expert conceptual models of the educational system—a model that is likely very different from the conceptual model held by  students and other constituents of the university.  Through user-centered design practices such as those recommended by Norman, educational leaders can design learning systems that are understandable and user friendly for their students.


Norman, D. A. (1988). The Design of Everyday Things. New York, Basic Books.

Learning Space Design Specification


Educause has developed a Learning Space Rating System to help schools develop active learning classrooms.

The Learning Space Rating System (LSRS) project provides a set of measurable criteria to assess how well the design of classrooms support and enable active learning activities. Noting the success of several architectural programs to promote sustainable building design, the LSRS provides a scoring system to serve as an indicator of how well a classroom’s design serves the goal of active learning. The LSRS criteria form the basis for a rating system that will allow institutions to benchmark their environments against best practices within the higher education community.

The rating system provides guidance in these areas.

  • Integration with the campus context
  • The design and planning process
  • Support and operations
  • Environmental quality
  • Layout and furnishings
  • Tools and technology

For background information on the project see the article in the Journal of Learning Spaces: The Case for a Learning Space Performance Rating System.

Apple, Design, Backward Design

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, opened a product release event today by playing this video which emphasizes the role of design in Apple’s work. Cook began his presentation saying,

I really love that video…I wanted to open with it this morning because I think it does such an incredible job of talking about our values. It reflects the unique way that Apple creates what we believe are the very best products in the world. You’re going to see some amazing products this morning that could only have been developed in that unique way.

In this video and his presentation Cook highlights the central role of design in Apple’s work; a process that focuses first on what they want the users of their products to experience and feel.

A Mac loving New Testament Professor I know sent me a text message today, “Are you watching the Apple streaming video? Their opening video is basically about backward design.”

Backward design is a framework for designing learning experiences that begins with articulating what students should know and be able because of a learning experience, then moving to designing and creating the learning activities and experiences that will help students attain the desired learning (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005, Fink, 2013).

Cook made a clear statement today about the central role of design for Apple. Just as Apple’s design process focuses on how users will be affected by their products, backward design focuses on what students will learn in a course or program. In my experience backward design is often done at the level of individual courses, but not necessarily at the level of an entire program or school. Are there colleges or universities where backward design plays a core strategic role? Are there deans, provosts, or presidents who are talking about the strategic role of design in ways similar to how Tim Cook is talking about design at Apple?

If you know of any examples of where this is happening, please share.

Fink, L. Dee. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences, revised and updated. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design, expanded 2nd edition. Pearson.

Liz Coleman on reinventing Liberal Arts Education

Liz Coleman, then President of Bennington College, gave a phenomenal TED talk in 2009 discussing the role of liberal arts education in the advancement of the public good. She discussed how Bennington was redesigning its curriculum with critical political and social challenges such as health, education, and the use of force as organizing focal points for learning.

“We intend to turn the intellectual and imaginative power, passion, and boldness of our students, faculty, and staff on developing strategies for acting on the most critical challenges of our time.”

While the college would still work with the arts and sciences, there is to be an increased focus on integrative work and learning. The Bennington model would create an action oriented curriculum that focuses on developing abilities in areas such as rhetoric, design, mediation, improvisation, quantitative reasoning, and technology as core abilities central to addressing complex social problems.

Tim Brown on Design Thinking

In this TED talk, Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, discusses how design thinking can be used to address complex systems problems in areas such as health care, education, or climate change. For Brown, the human centered, participatory, and action oriented practices of design thinking can help people and organizations develop new ideas to address the complex challenges of their world. Higher education is going through a time of significant change; the human centered, participatory, and action oriented practices of design thinking may help schools respond and thrive in their changing environments.

Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit


IDEO has created Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit, a fantastic free resource designed to help educators use Design Thinking to create and improve things at their schools.

The toolkit provides an introduction and overview to Design Thinking, outlining the major phases of a Design Thinking project.

  1. Discovery
  2. Interpretation
  3. Ideation
  4. Experimentation
  5. Evolution

For each of these phases, the toolkit provides step by step instructions for forming work teams and leading tasks of the phase. These instructions identify the number of people, time, and resources need for each task. Additionally, the instructions provide ideas and questions to help project teams complete their work.  See an Example.

For educators who are new to Design Thinking, the toolkit provides a good introduction to the process. For people experienced with Design Thinking, the toolkit provides rich resources to support projects.

The toolkit was developed in partnership with K-12 institutions, however, Higher Ed educators will have little difficulty translating the resource to their context.

UW Flex: Competency Based Degrees

The University of Wisconsin will be launching a new flexible option this fall which will offer competency based degree programs. Competency based degrees have a great potential to reduce costs for students by allowing them to demonstrate mastery and understanding for learning they have gained in other places rather than having to take a course for a topic they already understand well. The UW team has created an animated video which gives a great overview of how competency based programs can work.

Book: The Design of Business, Roger Martin

Cover image of The Design of Business, by Roger Martin

In his book, The Design of Business, why design thinking is the next competitive advantage, Roger Martin explores how design thinking can help businesses create long-term advantage and value by building systems that balance the needs of the analytical processes required for efficiently running an organization and the intuitive processes required to help organizations explore and discover new opportunities. Higher education is going through a period of significant change and many of the existing operational models are being disrupted through technological and social changes. Martin’s design of business framework is a helpful concept for colleges and universities seeking to create value and competitive advantage in our changing environment.

One of the core ideas Martin explores is how businesses traditionally derive long term value by moving knowledge through what he calls the knowledge funnel.

The first stage of the funnel is the exploration of a mystery. A research scientist might study the mystery of a syndrome such as autism. A hospital administrator might ask what kind of space would improve the condition of cancer patients coping with chemotherapy…

The next stage of the funnel is a heuristic, a rule of thumb that helps narrow the field of inquiry and work the mystery down to a manageable size…It is a way of thinking about the mystery that provides a simplified understanding of it and allows those with access to the heuristic to focus their efforts.

As an organization puts its heuristic into operation, studies more, and thinks about it intensely, it can convert from a general rule of thumb (Americans want a quick, convenient, tasty meal) to a fixed formula ( [Ray] Kroc’s totally systematized McDonald’s). That formula is an algorithm, the last of the three stages of the knowledge funnel (pp.7-9).

Martin argues that businesses create value by moving knowledge through the knowledge funnel—by exploring mysteries and creating heuristics to help address the mysteries, and by exploiting existing heuristics by transferring them to be algorithms allowing for expansion and economies of scale. “Most often, organizations choose to focus on one activity, either exploration or exploitation, to the exclusion of the other and their own detriment” (p.18).

Organizations that focus on exploration will often structure their work around intuitive processes that are able to make intuitive leaps that help a mystery to become a heuristic but will struggle with systemization and scaling and may be disrupted by other organizations that make their heuristic into an algorithm.

Organizations that focus on exploitation organize their work around “running an existing heuristic, gently honing and refining it, but not seeking to move knowledge to an algorithm or running an existing algorithm and not seeking to explore the next mystery” (p. 19). Exploitation oriented organizations are at risk of being disrupted by new discoveries or environmental changes that make their algorithm obsolete.

Martin offers a third mode of organizational orientation, design thinking, in which organizations embrace both exploration and exploitation activities. “The answer lies in embracing a third form of thinking—design thinking—that helps a company both hone and refine within the existing knowledge stage and generate the leap from state to stage, continuously, in a process I call the design of business” (p. 24).

For his definition of design thinking, Martin draws on a definition given by IDEO’s Tim Brown. “design thinking is ‘a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s need with what is technically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity'” (p.62).

Martin argues that in order for design thinking to thrive in organizations it will require leaders—design thinkers—who are able to balance intuitive discovery processes and the need for analytical decision making. To do their work, design thinkers employ the tools of observation, imagination, and configuration. Through observation, design thinkers develop a deep understanding of the people they hope to serve. With imagination, design thinkers make inferences about what might address people’s needs and through prototyping and user-testing, they refine the idea. In configuration, design thinkers translate their insights and prototypes into the systems that will create the business outcome (pp. 160-163).

The design thinker therefore enables the organization to balance exploration and exploitation, invention of business and administration of business, and originality and mastery. Design thinking powers the design of business, the directed movement of a business through the knowledge funnel from mystery to heuristic to algorithm and then the utilization of the resulting efficiencies to tackle the next mystery and the next and the next. The velocity of movement through the knowledge funnel, powered by design thinking, is the most powerful formula for competitive advantage in the twenty-first century (pp. 24-26).

Martin argues that building design thinking into an organization will take significant intentionality. Because most organizations are built around analytical logic processes, there will be clashes of culture between design thinking processes and traditional analytical processes. If organizations are to build and benefit from design thinking processes, there is leadership work that will be necessary to make space within the organization for design ways of thinking including how projects are structured, how compensation and prestige is managed, and how leadership makes decisions.

To illustrate design thinking in organizations, Martin discusses a number of companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Research In Motion, Target, Hermann Miller, Apple, and Steelcase that have moved to become design thinking oriented business, discussing how design thinking helped these companies create significant value. However, Martin’s criteria for what makes businesses successful in using design thinking is unclear. In particular, Research In Motion, maker of BlackBerry devices and one of Martin’s key example institutions, has lost significant market share in the years since the publication of this book. Additionally, Martin admits to have been personally involved in several of the example organizations. While Martin does not make a case-closed argument for the effectiveness of design thinking, the concept has merit and is worth more exploration.

The world is changing for higher education institutions, many schools are finding that their organizational models are being disrupted by technological and social changes. For many, past history will not be an indication of future results. Colleges and universities have often structured their work in the heuristic level of Martin’s funnel, hiring highly skilled and highly paid faculty and administrators to support student learning. In some cases this heuristic level work is being transformed to algorithmic work through technological change that allows schools and organizations to automate many teaching and learning tasks. For-profit schools, online learning, MOOCs, and alternate credentialing systems are a few of the changes making some educational processes much cheaper and are disrupting the operational models of many schools.

Martin’s design of business model could be helpful for higher education institutions.  Colleges and universities could embrace  algorithmic processes, making some teaching and learning work more efficient in order to free up creative and skilled faculty and administrators to tackle new and vexing challenges—to explore new mysteries and create new opportunities through developing new heuristics.  The design of business model may help colleges and universities to respond to current disruptive changes by developing organizational systems that are able to discover new possibilities and then help them develop those concepts effectively and efficiently.

Design Thinking for Education Webinar


Educause recently recently hosted a webinar on Design Thinking for Higher Education. Presenters Dr. Lennie Scott-Weber and Sean Corcorran are both leaders at Steelcase. In this presentation, they outline the phases of Design Thinking, discuss possible implications for using Design Thinking in higher education, and then show how Design Thinking was used to develop the Node chair. The presenters make good use of images and stories to show how the Node project developed and changed through phases of Design Thinking.

Designing Higher Ed

Designing Higher Ed is a space to explore how Human Centered Design practices can help leaders in colleges and universities better serve the needs of our students. Higher education is going through a period of significant change. New technologies, shifting student demographics, increased competition, changing legal regulations, and changing financial realities are just a few of the complex challenges we are navigating. How can we best respond to these changes, especially when no one person will have the all of the skills, knowledge, and connections necessary to create the solutions that will bring higher education into the future?

Human Centered Design practices can help us to navigate these challenges by providing methods for us to understand the needs of our constituents and create innovative solutions that will help students learn. Design processes such as Design Thinking,  Backward Design, and User-Centered Design can bring together teams with diverse skills and talents to discover needs and to create solutions for the complex challenges facing our colleges and universities.

This site is a place to collect and share ideas on how we can lead Human Centered Design practices in colleges and universities to help us improve our important work in teaching and learning.