People create mental models of themselves, others, the environment, and the things with which they interact. These are conceptual models formed through experience, training, and instruction. These models serve as guides to help achieve our goals and in understanding the world.
How do we form an appropriate conceptual model for the devices we interact with? We cannot talk to the designer, so we rely upon whatever information is available to us: what the device looks like, what we know from using similar things in the past, what was told to us in the sales literature, by salespeople and advertisements, by articles we may have read, by the product website and instruction manuals. I call the combined information available to us the system image. When the system image is incoherent or inappropriate, as in the case of the refrigerator, then the user cannot easily use the device. If it is incomplete or contradictory, there will be trouble.
As illustrated in Figure 1.11, the designer of the product and the person using the product form somewhat disconnected vertices of a triangle. The designer’s conceptual model is the designer’s conception of the product, occupying one vertex of the triangle.
The product itself is no longer with the designer, so it is isolated as a second vertex, perhaps sitting on the user’s kitchen counter. The system image is what can be perceived from the physical structure that has been built (including documentation, instructions, signifiers, and any information available from websites and helplines). The user’s conceptual model comes from the system image, through interaction with the product, reading, searching for online information, and from whatever manuals are provided. The designer expects the user’s model to be identical to the design model, but because designers cannot communicate directly with users, the entire burden of communication is on the system image.