Making Mistaken Assumptions about User Mental Models

As I’ve been doing various kinds of user research for over a decade and interacting with students in reference and classroom settings, I’ve been trying to keep my eyes peeled for changes in mental models our students have that might affect their use of the library website and library tools (databases, discovery layer, etc.) Reading the literature around the concept of “container collapse” over the past few years has made me think about the disconnect in the way libraries present to users access by format type (books, journals, newspapers, etc.) and what our students may actually know about those format types.

The more I read about “student success” initiatives on college campuses and efforts to make the campus experience more comprehensible to students and the more I pay attention to conversations on the subreddit for the college where I work, the more I see basic things we present on our college websites that we mistakenly assume students know about and will recognize by name as they browse or search our site. Here are some quick examples.


A common question I see from our students is, “How can I find the email address (or the phone number) of Professor So-and-So?” My initial instinct is to be shocked that that students don’t realize all that info is easily findable on the college’s directory. But if I take a moment and consider my age (I’m an early Gen-Xer), I remember that I grew up with nearly annual delivery of printed white pages and yellow pages to my home. That notion that there are canonical directories of contact information is one that has likely become less known, in part because phone books really aren’t much of a thing anymore.

Campus Offices

I’m not gonna lie here: I can’t tell you the origins of the word “bursar” or even properly without having to look it up, but I do happen to know it’s where you pay for stuff as a student. I can only imagine what students make of the term. The “registrar” is another office that uses an old-fashioned word that we assume students will be able to figure out. I’m excited by my college’s efforts to create a one-stop shop experience for students who don’t know where to turn for help and think it’s a useful step to address the lack of familiarity students have about who does what where on campus.

Campus Maps, Floor Plan Maps, and Directions

It doesn’t occur to every student that the campus website might include maps of all the building locations and directions to campus. As a commuter school, our needs in this area are probably more pressing than with a residential college where students are on campus 24/7. With respect to floor plans for a building, my mental model for that as a type of information may be stronger as I grew up in an era where any visit to a museum, zoo, or historical site included a chance to grab a paper map. While Google Maps and other mapping services have made some inroads in creating online floor plan maps, I wonder if my having been raised with paper versions makes the concept of such maps something I’m more likely to expect than younger generations are.

Final Thoughts

Clearly, as older container types for information and types of information fade from popular awareness, those of us who design websites need to be aware of these changes and have them reflected in our designs. Keeping up is a challenge, as there are informal ways to get some limited view of what’s changing, but increasingly I’ve been thinking that I need to more directed and purposeful to stay informed of what’s out and what’s on the horizon.

2 thoughts on “Making Mistaken Assumptions about User Mental Models

  1. I’ve been thinking about this, too, as we go through a major website design. Our guides used to have journals, books, reference, databases all in separate functions but what we really want is to guide people to the best tool to help them satisfy their need. Do they need background? Look up a property? See what’s on the cutting edge… and how do we represent our resources in a functional sense instead of a container sense. (difference between a journal platform, digital library, research database)

  2. We made that shift from format indicators to functional indicators, too, in our research guides. One big challenge is how to think about our embedded search box for our discovery layer, which includes dropdowns offering format types. That presentation of format types is also present in the filtering options on search results pages; from my experience, it’s clear that many students mental models for format type are with each passing year becoming fuzzier and fuzzier (e.g., saying they need to find a journal when in fact they need to find an article in a journal).

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