• Sean Keenan

Concepts of User Centered Design

For my next project, I’ve chosen to take on the challenge of redesigning an already made website in IMDb. Like any other project, following the process is key and at this step in the process, with the first step in this being research. Specifically, research about some concepts of user-centered design, with the most prominent being Mental Models and

Mental Models

To define Mental Models, they can be described as the thought process being used by someone when they are trying to solve a problem. For example, the concept of supply and demand is a mental model, as from our life experiences, we’ve found a strong connection between a limited supply of an item and people subsequently wanting that item more. Mental models are great, because they can both guide a user or creator to help create better products, as well as giving people who aren’t as familiar with the field something to base their work off of.

While mental models are often a net positive, they can’t be the only guide to your work. As written by Cedric Chin of commoncog, mental models need more than just reading and thinking

The central conceit of mental model education is the following: Successful, effective people make good decisions and achieve successful outcomes in life because they have better mental models. Therefore, the secret to achieving successful outcomes in business and in life is to distill their mental models into written principles, and then learn them. This exercise can be done by a teacher who aggregates and summarizes the mental models of the best practitioners in the world. The first half of this assertion is true: successful, effective people do have better mental models that bring them success in their respective fields. They build such models through a lifetime of practice. The second half of this assertion is false: you cannot learn the mental models that are responsible for success through reading and thinking. The reason for this is the same reason that attempting to learn how to ride a bicycle by reading a book is stupid. The most valuable mental models do not survive codification. They cannot be expressed through words alone.”

An issue many run in with is they see a problem, look up a solution that was made by someone else, then try to apply that solution without understanding why they’re doing what they’re doing. While that mental model may be amazing for whoever used it, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s amazing for you. More information is often much better, but if you don’t know how to interact with it or how it works, then the information won’t be very helpful. You may know you need to do this to get the printer working, but you’re not really sure why, which makes the task both more difficult as well as more likely that you may mess it up.

This isn’t to say researching other mental models still isn’t useful though. To use an example from entertainment, I think the show The Legend of Korra actually shows off an interesting perspective of both someone learning through someone else’s mental model, as well as the flaws with that type of learning with the character of Zaheer. Despite being a non-bender in a world full of powerful elemental benders, Zaheer is still considered a dangerous martial artist, as well as an expert on Air Nomad culture. During his introduction, we see he’s been gifted the ability to airbend and quickly became adept at it. Part of this is obviously due to his natural martial arts skills, as bending is really just magic martial arts, but his deep understanding of the culture also helps with this rapid improvement. He understands many of the different mental models and even performs potentially the most difficult of all when he takes flight.

Zaheer learning to fly, an ability that hasn't been seen in nearly 4,000 years

Despite never being able to bend before this, solely using an ancient mental model he can now fly, which is extremely impressive. He almost seems unstoppable but later on we see him fight Tenzin, the greatest living airbender at the time, and he’s outclassed. Zaheer still wins the fight because it eventually turned into a 4 on 1, but it showed that even while Zaheer may seem like an expert solely using the mental models of air nomad culture, the precision and technique Tenzin has shows the benefits of real world experience to help enhance the similar mental models he has.

Zaheer being overmatched by Tenzin, showing the difference between him and a true master

Iterative Design

Without context, the concept of iterative design can seem a little scary. By saying your projects are living things that need to be updated, it makes it seem like you’ll forever be haunted by this never ending pile of work. In reality though, iterative design actually makes the design process far less scary.

One big reason, as stated in Enginess’ article on iterative design, is that it markedly improves user testing. It’s always difficult when you spend so much time researching a project, making sure the user runs into no issues, and then see multiple users pretty much hate the design. In a non-iterative design world, that project is done and considered a failure. Due to iterative design though, rather than moping, you can instead take this large sample of user feedback and use it to enhance your product. This is commonplace in many mediums, such as the constant updates for applications, as well as remakes for things like movies and video games.

Beyond being able to always fix those minor issues, it also is beneficial for a designer's mental health. As stated by Emily Gosling here, while there can be some positives to mental health, though the negatives are often worse

Anxiety—true anxiety—is one such condition. It’s a double-edged sword: at times the self-criticism inherent with anxiety can encourage rigorous thinking. But that sort of detailed self-reflection can easily tip over into a state of perfectionism in which actually doing something can prove impossible. Like its frequent bedfellow depression, anxiety can strangle both a creative impulse and a person on a fundamental level.

Designing with anxiety is always a constant battle. While it can force you to be more innovative as you often overthink and become a perfectionist, the mental toll it can often take is tiring and often unsustainable. With this issue in mind, combining this natural anxiety with the idea that you only get one shot at this project would be a borderline nightmare. With iterative design, though struggles can be managed. I know for me, there've been times where I'm struggling with overthinking something and eventually think “You know what, whatever, I’ll just do this and fix it later if I have too”. If done too much this can be a bad habit, but knowing that the design is an iterative one helps alleviate that pressure of only getting one shot

My Redesign

Over the next few weeks I’m going to undergo the process of redesigning the website IMDb. I often use the site, I even linked to it earlier, though I feel it’s design is a bit behind the times. This research on user-centered design was the first step in this process and look forward to continuing on with it in the weeks to come.


Avatar Videos Clips. “Tenzin VS Zaheer.” YouTube, 17 Nov. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=zHlqmwI- Bd0&ab_channel=AvatarVideosClips. Accessed 26 Oct. 2020.

Chin, Cedric. “The Mental Model Fallacy.” Commonplace - The Commoncog Blog, 12 Nov. 2018, commoncog.com/blog/the-mental-model-fallacy/. Accessed 26 Oct. 2020.

Enginess Author. “What Is Iterative Design? (And Why You Should Use It).” Enginess.Io, 20 Apr. 2018, www.enginess.io/insights/what-is-iterative-design. Accessed 26 Oct. 2020.

Hard Work, Attention to Detail,” and Paralyzing Fear: the Ups + Downs of Designing with Anxiety. “‘Hard Work, Attention to Detail,’ and Paralyzing Fear: The Ups + Downs of Designing with Anxiety.” Eye on Design, 26 Oct. 2017, eyeondesign.aiga.org/hard-work-attention-to-detail-and-paralyzing-fear-the-ups-downs-of-designing-with-anxiety/.

SC Assault Ninja. “Zaheer Enters The Void.” YouTube, 26 Aug. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=QB-j2MOfqB4&ab_channel=SCAssaultNinja. Accessed 26 Oct. 2020.

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