Every startup should be familiar with mental models and here’s why | by Emmanuella Ben-Eboh | Dec, 2021

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Understanding the role of mental models in solving problems rapidly and preventing you from remaining stuck

Stephan Schmitz illustration

“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” — E. E. Cummings

In the startup world, I’ve noticed a common plague that attacks most founders regardless of their work experience or background. It permeates through business models, products and all the way down to team meetings. It is the plague of what Paul Graham typically calls “a solution looking for a problem” and it usually stems from not knowing your customer that well or not asking customers the right questions.

It is so easy to fall prey to the plague because it is so subtle. In your mind, you’ve built up the perfect stories of how your business would succeed, one where you’ve created cutting-edge technology that brings in a ton of sales and a billion dollar company valuation. But remember, one billion started from a dollar. Rome was not built in a day and your company is not going to be a billion dollar company overnight.

P. S. There’s no need to feel discouraged because I have also fallen victim of this plague and it’s something that I had learned to manage over the years. However, I have quite recently come across an antidote to this plague, one which I call the mental model.

What are mental models?

According to Indi Young, mental models are a means of getting “a deeper understanding of people’s motivations and thought-processes, along with the emotional and philosophical landscape in which they are operating.”

“A deeper understanding of people’s motivations and thought-processes, along with the emotional and philosophical landscape in which they are operating.”

In lay man’s terms, it is asking customers the right questions and understanding the motivations behind their actions.

Mental models typically get you into your customers head or mental space. What were they thinking about when they walked into your store or downloaded your app? Why did they choose a tote bag versus a purse?

Here’s an example of what a mental model I built for myself as I was trying to understand the motivations behind my love for cooking at home:

Mental model capturing my process of enjoying a home-cooked meal

How do mental models work?

A mental model can be broken down into three parts: tasks, towers and mental spaces. Here’s how you can use them to develop products your customers would love:

Tasks: It typically starts with tasks or activities that customers need to get done. You can also refer to them as the jobs-to-be-done. Start by gathering all the activities your customer needs to get done and cluster them. In this case, I have picked out several activities that take place when I’m preparing a meal for myself. It’s definitely different when I’m cooking for others. I have tasks like creating a grocery list, finding stores nearest to me, etc.

Tower: Next on the hierarchy are towers. You can think of them as the higher level group. Arrange all the clusters and start to give them names. In this example above, I have clustered them into four different touch points: planning, shopping, meal prep and eating. With these touch points, you can start to see how I switch from different mindsets. What are the different categories you start to see in your own cluster?

Mental spaces: This is the larger summary of the activities your customer is trying to achieve. In this example, my mental space was “enjoying a home-cooked meal.” Start asking yourself, “what is the summary of all these towers? “what are the mental spaces I would like to learn more about?” You can work on several metal spaces, you don’t have to focus on one. I just worked on one mental space for the purpose of this article and explaining the concept.

Mental models as a tool for execution

When it comes down to executing tasks based on insights, mental models are typically broken down into two spaces: problem and solution space.

Problem space: In the above example, deciding on what I want to cook during the week is a hassle, so I go to Instagram’s explore page or online recipe sites to gain inspiration. There are probably better solutions out there but this is what I do right now.

In your startup, you may find out that people are actively working to search better student loan options or finding out the best place to get articles. It can even be as simple as keeping a schedule to drinking the right amount of water everyday. How do you create features in such a way that they are connected to these problems?

Solution space: Solutions are typically the answer to the questions people ask in tasks. In my example, I have shown the solutions that surround the tasks I need to accomplish. My tasks are statements but they can also be questions. You can switch it up to questions like, “Where can I find organic foods?” or “What’s the right movie for my mood right now?” Once you cluster those questions or activities together, you’ll start to realize that the solutions or features you create become the answer to what your customers are searching for.

“When you start with the idea of making a thing, you’re artificially limiting what you can deliver.” — Peter Merholz

Prioritizing features and product offerings

Are you stuck in the cycle of re-inventing? Do you find yourself testing multiple features or products at once, only to realize that customers don’t see the value in your offering? The mental model may just be the perfect fix for you because it helps you understand your customers’ problems, build solutions around them, and prioritize over “must-haves” and “nice to haves.” Often times, as founders we tend to build “amazing” solutions and forget the people we are building them for.

Solutions come after problems

Peter Merholz, one of the founders of Adaptive Path says, “When you start with the idea of making a thing, you’re artificially limiting what you can deliver… Products are realized only as necessary artifacts to address customer needs. What Flickr, Kodak, Apple and Target all realize is that the experience is the product we deliver, and the only thing that our customers care about.”

Always remember that solutions come after problems.

Ask the right questions

In conclusion, E.E Cummings says, “Always the more beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” It’s important to ask yourself the what, who and how. What problem am I trying to solve? Who is the solution intended for? How do I create the solution? Mental models seek to address the how.

Questions like these tend to take some time to answer, for some a day or two; for others, months or years. This is because it is far easier to build solutions around ourselves. Developing empathy takes time. It requires effort in shifting lens from “me” to “them.” What do THEY want to get done?

By using mental models, I can definitely assure you of not only a shift in your mindset about creating good products but also ashift in the way you deliver value to your customers and clarity in the direction you take when making decisions around customers’ experiences.

*Please do let me know if you found this helpful or insightful. I hope this helps you as much as it helped me.*

References

  1. Mental models by Indi Young
  2. Designing with mental model diagrams — An introduction by Tiago Camacho and Leah Connolly
  3. How to get startup ideas by Paul Graham



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