Mental Models, Feedback Expectations, and Usable Designs

By Kirk St.Amant | STC Fellow

This column examines how cognitive factors can affect technical communication and design processes. Email the editor at

Humans are wired for feedback. We use feedback to assess our communiques, and we provide feedback to let others know how we feel. Sometimes, we are aware of this factor; other times, things happen reflexively. In all cases, humans need feedback to determine whether something worked. Understanding how these feedback dynamics operate can greatly enhance usability and design.

Mental Models and Interaction

When humans interact, we often create mental models of how we might present information and how audiences might respond. Usually, we create a series of mental models for presentation and response and compare them to determine which approach would work best. We then use the “best” approach and wait to see how our audience reacts—or what feedback they provide in response.

We use this feedback to determine how our message was received. If feedback indicates all was successful, we move on to our next item. If feedback indicates an audience did not understand, we use that information to revise our mental model, try again, and wait for a response. We continue with this process of “revise mental model, try again, and wait for new feedback” until we achieve success or give up. Social psychologists refer to this iterative process of mental modeling based on feedback as minding, and it has implications for usability and design.

Minding and Use

Minding often guides how we use objects. When we see a screwdriver, our mind accesses a mental model of how we think it should be used. We rely on that model to:

  • Guide how to use the screwdriver
  • Assess the results of our actions (feedback) to determine if we’re using it correctly

For new objects, we create several different mental models for use, select the one we consider most accurate, and try to use the object. We rely on feedback (i.e., the results of our actions) to determine if we need to revise our mental model of use and try different approaches, as needed.

The more interactive the item, the more essential feedback is to effective use. To use an app on a mobile phone, we review the icons displayed and create mental models for how to use a given icon to perform a task (e.g., accessing the feature for calling someone). We select the “best” model, perform the related action (tap a “phone” icon), and wait for feedback. If we encounter expected feedback (e.g., a keypad for dialing numbers appears), then we know the process worked. If, however, we do not encounter expected feedback (e.g., a “Not recognized” message appears), we use that result to revise the mental model of use and try again.

Interaction, Feedback, and Design Expectations

The more interactive the item, the more kinds of feedback are expected at different points in a process. Logging in to an email system, for example, might require users to move through several screens. At each step, the user expects feedback to indicate if a task was performed correctly or not. The result is a feedback chain—a series of different kinds of feedback that users expect to encounter when using an interactive technology. The more steps or interactions in the process, the greater the number of links—or indicators of activity—that users expect to encounter in the chain.

Feedback is central to these processes, for humans expect some sort of signal to know how to proceed with an interaction. For this reason, designs need to include feedback cues that lets the user know:

  • If an activity has been recognized as performed (something has been done)
  • If so, was that activity the correct one or not (something was done correctly)
  • What to do next (if done correctly) or do differently (if done incorrectly)

Achieving these objectives involves addressing five aspects of the minding-feedback relationship.

The Five Factors of Minding

Effective feedback cues address five factors related to minding expectations:

Factor 1: Need. Individuals need feedback cues to indicate their actions were recognized after they complete an action (e.g., clicking on an app causes a change in the interface).

Factor 2: Speed. Feedback cues need to be seen to be useful; cues that are too quick to register (e.g., a split-second flash of red) do not let users know if a process was done correctly or not. Rather, cues need to occur long enough to catch the user’s attention and persist until the user responds to them (e.g, a light that blinks until the user performs a specific action).

Factor 3: Heed. Feedback cues must catch and hold a user’s attention (be heeded) to be effective. Feedback cues that are too subtle can be overlooked—or easily forgotten if one is distracted—and fail to provide the information needed to facilitate use.

Factor 4: Read. For feedback cues to be useful, individuals need to recognize the message that they convey. Cues that gain the individual’s attention, but don’t clearly indicate if something was done correctly, cause confusion. Those that clearly note such factors facilitate use.

Factor 5: Proceed. Feedback cues need to indicate both that something has been done and what needs to be done next or in response. For processes performed successfully, cues should indicate the next thing users need to do (e.g., “Enter Password Now”). For processes done incorrectly, such cues should note what went wrong or what needs to be done to address a situation (e.g., “Complete fields marked with *”).

Designs that address these factors provide the feedback needed to perform actions successfully and use items effectively.

Final Thoughts

Usability is about meeting expectations. Such expectations are formed in the minds of users and guide how they interact with objects. By understanding the role of feedback in such situations, technical communicators can create designs that effectively guide human uses of different tools and technologies. The five factors of minding can help with such processes and can contribute to creating more usable designs.

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