How To Create an Audience Mental Model

Lorraine Chisholm Lorraine Chisholm

Two years ago, Work at Play set out to interview gamers in order to learn how they find and choose new games to play. We turned that research into our very first audience mental model. Since then, we’ve applied our mental model research and analysis methodology to a wide range of audiences, from car enthusiasts to homebuyers.

Mental models help organize disparate behaviours into clear, actionable patterns.
Mental models help organize disparate behaviours into clear, actionable patterns.
Work at Play uses a consumer mental model that goes through the process a consumer experiences when buying a house. It’s a way of thinking about the homebuyer’s journey and ensuring that we’re doing something helpful in each stage. The way Work at Play summarized and packaged the strategy made it very digestible. It was great; we’re still using it.
Wesley Marstaller, COO at Rennie Group

What is an Audience Mental Model?

Audience mental models visualize data about why users do the things they do. Mental models are invaluable tools to help you understand your audience’s thoughts, behaviours, beliefs, and needs within a well-defined area of activity. Mental models help you step back from your own viewpoint in order to better anticipate the needs of your audience.

What can I do with it?

Audience mental models can be used to generate content strategies, marketing plans, business strategies, or product roadmaps. They enable you to design solutions and campaigns that meet real customer needs. At Work at Play we use audience mental models to inform digital strategy, and to design practical features and content to execute on that strategy.

Indi Young, an early pioneer of the audience mental model, breaks down the benefits of mental models into 3 Cs — Confidence, Clarity, and Continuity:

Confidence in your design. A well developed mental model guides the design of your solutions, and provides a solid foundation on which to form your ideas.

Clarity in direction. You can make evidence-based user and business decisions based on your research and insights.

Continuity in strategy. A model founded on your users’ needs and behaviours can ensure longevity of vision and opportunity.

How do I conduct research?

In depth, one-on-one interviews are the primary research method behind audience mental models. Interviews are your chance to speak with people about what they do in the area you wish to understand. Post-interview, you begin to comb through interview transcripts for patterns that you will eventually organize into a mental model diagram. This model creates a clear picture of how people in your area of focus make decisions, think things through, and react to specific situations.

How to Create an Audience Mental Model

Our recent workshop at the 2016 BCAMA Vision Conference enabled participants to roll up their sleeves and create an audience mental model in record time. Since we didn’t have the time or resources to create a full-scale, comprehensive mental model, we skipped the interview research and analysis phase, and plunged right into building a finite, workshop-friendly version of a mental model.

For our first half of the workshop, an unsorted stack of cards was passed to each group, with each card containing a different user task. Each task on a card represented a user’s behaviour, motivation, philosophy, or emotion. Since we used a filmgoer as our sample user, task cards ranged from “the moment a filmgoer considers seeing a film” to “the filmgoer’s post-viewing reflections.

Participants were then instructed to line up related tasks into vertical towers. For example, one tower grouped together tasks that involved finding and evaluating movie reviews. Participants were instructed to build the model from the bottom up, so the research findings shaped the structure of the diagram, and not vice versa. The towers of related tasks were then sorted into larger “mental spaces” in order to group main phases or mindsets in the filmgoer’s journey.

Working with a Mental Model at Work at Play.
Working with a Mental Model at Work at Play.

Finally, once we grouped the tasks, towers, and mental spaces, we stacked them above a horizontal line to create a finished mental model similar to the one above.

For our second half of the workshop, participants brainstormed marketing activities, features, and content that were placed below the horizontal line to match with each of the filmgoer’s needs and motivations stacked above. We generated a rich set of potential solutions which we later filtered and refined. This activity mirrors the process Work at Play goes through once we have completed a mental model with our clients.

The power in this approach is the ease with which we can identify gaps in our current offering, generate new ways to reach our audience, and innovate our product or program. The audience mental model is a useful tool for designers, marketers, and stakeholders because it keeps each group focused on the customer’s practical, emotional, and aspirational needs.

In Conclusion

Audience mental models are one of our most powerful strategy tools. By deeply plumbing the thoughts, emotions, philosophies, and behaviors of your audience, you can generate a deep understanding of their needs, and better support them on their customer journey.