Mental Models For UX, Search And Conversion

My column on customer segmentation and searcher personas last week left me with a few lingering thoughts to explore. I began that piece with opening remarks to set the stage for the opinions that followed. I noted, “The ability to communicate with intended audiences through relevant language, and in appreciation of expressed intent, are established keys for effective search engine marketing. You have to know your audiences, and what their needs are, to realize any degree of success.”

On the surface, those statements aren’t controversial. They’re not likely to provoke rebuttals or differing opinions. But that last sentence, more than anything else I wrote, later gave me the most pause. Experience has shown that determining audience needs is not nearly as straightforward as my article implied. In fact, really understanding audience needs and expectations is arguably the most crucial component to success across the Web, search included.



A key tool we use when creating websites and landing pages is a user mental model map. Mental models, according to Wikipedia, are “an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world.” In the world of digital marketing, mental model maps help align our content, assets and offers in ways intuitive to prospective customers. They enable us to speak the customer’s language, while delivering materials that are relevant and expected, at key gates of the consideration process.

In her book “Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy With Human Behavior,” author Indi Young advocates for a design philosophy that reaches deep into the human psyche. According to Young, mental models enable an “understanding of people’s motivations and thought processes.” That power applied to the Web allows for richer site experiences, which in turn produce stronger engagement and conversion.

Mental models in a digital marketing environment have many useful applications, but we’ve been most successful in using them to help craft a hierarchy of Web “offers,” or the series of micro- and macro- conversion events that are present across a website. In practical terms, we use them to help identify the range of offers that should be present across the website. We then prioritize those offers by audience and importance (both to the user and the organization). This approach is especially useful in environments where there is a lengthy purchase decision process.

In order to populate the mental model, first take inventory of the offers, or engagement “hooks” you already have. These are typically video or white paper assets, an e-newsletter, or a time-based free trial. Add to that list via some investigation and additional research. What are your nearest competitors offering their site visitors? Are there broader industry best practices that you can draw from? Are there any secondary research findings you could glean insight from?

Then ask your customers about their expectations for your website and other sites in your space. This can be done either face-to-face through customer interviews, or via Web usability experiments where users perform specific tasks in an isolated environment. Web offers will be either validated or rejected based on the discoveries from this final step.

What results from this methodical, user-centric approach is a clear understanding of the types of content and offers that are needed/expected at various inflection points of purchase consideration. This knowledge can transcend the entire Web experience; you’ll know where in the hierarchy to deliver select messages and calls-to-action.

Place yourself in your users’ shoes, empathize with them, and commit to ongoing improvement. You’ll be rewarded both with happier website visitors and greater conversion throughput.

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