5 Mental Model Tactics to Become a Better Problem Solver

September 24th, 2018 | Caitlin Pequignot

5 Mental Model Tactics to Become a Better Problem Solver

“Simultaneous invention and incremental improvement are the way innovation works, even for radical inventions,” Mark A. Lemley in The Myth of the Sole Inventor.


Our mental models—the frameworks through which we interpret reality—are constantly updating as we move through our worlds. UX designers and strategists think in terms of usability, product developers construct mental models around systems, and project managers think in the context of timelines and initiatives. But, only with these shared mental models can a great product be created.

We know that our memory systems are the basis of how we build mental models of our worlds, but sometimes they fail us when we need them most. By understanding the limits of our memory, we can create mental models that make us better learners and collaborators.

Here are five tactics you can use to maximize learning, identify opportunities, and become a better problem solver.


Keep an Open Mental Model Mindset

Update Mental Models with Spaced-out Learning

Construct Mental Models Chunk-by-Chunk

Save the Best for First and Last

Create Shared Mental Model Systems


Keep an Open Mental Model Mindset

As a UX strategist, my job involves conducting in-depth user and market research to unearth the hidden pain points that make huge impacts on product growth. I’ve spent years developing mental models for what constitutes good UX practices, but sometimes, those models can get in the way—for me and for my clients. And when that happens, I have to be willing to update and expand my own models so that each project, product, and process is an opportunity for growth.

Often, when I’m with a client, I’ll hear something like this: “Our interface is just a little out-of-date and we think a re-skin will drive retention.” As a true partner to my clients, my job is to make sure neither of us is confusing a surface-level symptom for a larger problem. That means digging up the real opportunities that may (or may not) be staring us square in the face.

So, before sending in our UX designers, I stop to consider what mental models my client might be using to shape their understanding of the problem.


  • What customer experiences have they had that would lead to this conclusion?
  • What other products have they interacted with that influence their idea of UX design?
  • At their company, how do they typically detect and approach retention issues?

My understanding of them is also a reflection of the models that exist within my own worldview, and it’s affected by my past experiences. I can recall a past client who faced a similar issue and thought a redesign was the solution. We conducted field and user research to get to the real heart of the issue and, very quickly, we realized that consumers needed a better in-store experience. Once we addressed the underlying issue, product adoption skyrocketed.

That experience updated my mental model for this type of situation, and now, I can find the solution even faster for the unique challenge that lies ahead. By keeping an open mindset, every moment in our lives can be an opportunity to update our existing mental models and thereby learn and grow.

Update Mental Models with Spaced-out Learning

Your short-term memory is just that: a temporary storage bank that can only hold so much data. Some researchers relate the idea of our working memory to scratch paper: once it’s used up, our cognitive load hits its threshold, and our ability to learn new concepts decreases.

Thankfully, there are some easy ways to keep our cognitive load in-check. According to the encoding variability theory, spacing out learning sessions can help you retrieve information more effectively than absorbing it all at once. The hypothesis suggests that when we encode the same information in different contexts and settings, we actually activate distinct brain regions and neural responses that improve our long-term memory. This approach also aligns with the study-phase retrieval theory, which claims that seeing your work with fresh eyes allows you to approach it with a new sense of understanding.

So, turns out all those all-nighters in college spent cramming before a test were probably not that effective. If you’re mastering a new skill, preparing for a presentation, or simply gathering your thoughts on a subject, spread each task throughout the week and change up your work setting. 

Most importantly, allow your clients to do the same and help them develop healthy mental models. If your team and theirs have conflicting opinions during a design critique, for example, encourage everyone involved to revisit the topic in a different time and place before regrouping for a final decision.


Construct Mental Models Chunk-by-Chunk

In the same way users enjoy digital experiences that match their existing models, our partners and teammates naturally prefer when information is broken down in a way that they’re already accustomed to understanding. In fact, relating information to each other or linking them to memorable experiences can be the key to unlocking creativity and deeper understanding.

Researcher Daniel Bor, who spent years studying human’s search for meaning, suggests that by chunking information we can communicate the meaning of data using models our viewer has seen before. You can chunk information by category, process, or timeline in the form of agendas, table of contents, diagrams, and imagery.

What about when you’re trying to break down a difficult concept to a client, like the value of building an enterprise service bus to house your interconnected systems? We help our partners understand this seemingly complicated framework with the following models. The first image represents the risks of having interwoven systems and the second exemplifies a scalable, centralized architecture through which admins can swap out systems without impacting each other.



Save the Best for First and Last

The serial position effect suggests that how our meetings, presentations, and user experiences begin and end are far more important than anything in-between. This theory is broken into two parts: the primacy effect and recency effect


  • Primacy effect – Items presented first are the most important because they set an anchor for the user to judge the entire experience.
  • Recency effect – Actions that just occurred are more representative of the “now” and are the easiest to recall later.


From a UX standpoint, if you expect the user to make their decision quickly based on copy alone, then include the most important information first. However, when sharing information in audio or video format—where the user doesn’t have control over the speed of the content—save the best for last because they’re more likely to remember the final punch line.

Ultimately, our first and last interactions are the most impactful for the retrieval of information because they’re the most memorable, and therefore, have the largest effect on the way we reconstruct our mental models on that topic.

No wonder the checkout flow of an e-commerce site is so important.


Create Shared Mental Model Systems

The quote by Mark Lemley at the beginning of this piece speaks a simple truth: real innovation happens through methodical processes and shared knowledge between teams. In meetings, you may take personal notes or rely on a project manager to consolidate the information into tasks—but those are not examples of inventive collaboration. When all members are expected to share their mental models, you can lean on your team members and clients for dependable shared memory systems and all viewpoints can be considered.

Let’s go back to that meeting we discussed—the one with the client looking for a redesign. As a UX strategist, I had to use my mental models to realize we needed more user research. Meanwhile, our project manager had her own input regarding the budget and scope of further user research. And our marketing strategist? Well, he thinks a robust awareness campaign could help the brand too. Now, imagine if I had only considered my own perspective?

The idea of positive interdependence suggests a synergistic attitude between teammates—one in which each member is essential to the success of the group. An agile team with interdisciplinary members can inspire each other and reinforce learning through shared experiences. Then, with proper documentation and continuous version control, those moments of true collaboration can be recorded over time and used to reconstruct meaning later.


Neuroscience for Digital Products

You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to apply lessons of cognitive learning to product design. By understanding our learning systems and those of our partners, coworkers, and users, we can create healthy communication patterns and more efficient growth strategies.

Admitting your brain isn’t a steel trap, and that it has shortcomings, is the first step. Learning how to manage those shortcomings by strengthening our learning frameworks is the key to maximizing your brain power and fostering true collaboration.



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