Project-number: MMI99010

Project title: Mental models of incidental human-machine interaction

Research theme: User-centered design

Project dates: May 1, 2000 - April 30, 2004

Mental models of incidental human-machine interaction

When people use technology or systems only incidentally, they are not motivated to invest in learning. The user, however, needs to understand the functionality of the device and the relation of this to his task, in order to be able to apply the system. Design methods for complex but infrequent human-machine interaction need to focus (among other things) on enabling the development of an "instant" mental model that allows useful interaction.


Increasingly people apply information technology and complex interactive systems, both in work situations and for leisure activities. Information technology is embedded in telephones, TV sets and home computers are merging into a single device, watches and personal assistants are growing towards each other. Apart from this public services are growing: electronic counters, ATM combined with electronic shop, information booths, etc. Users of these systems are not "professional" users, and the frequency of use will be low, resulting in low motivation for reading directions or for training (which anyhow would not be feasible in most cases). Systems and devices have to be designed to optimally fit the users and the task situation. Users need to apply a valid mental model that is developed on the spot. The system needs to invoke this at first sight, and needs to support the user's task problems optimally. For designing this type of systems, several research questions need to be answered:

  1. What are relevant aspects of mental models for incidental human-machine interaction with complex systems?
  2. What are characteristics of this type of mental models that may guide adequate design?
  3. Develop a valid and relevant conceptual framework for investigation of mental models aiming at the design of the intended class of systems.
  4. Develop valid techniques for assessing mental models, possibly based on known techniques (Pathfinder - Schvaneveld; Teach-back - Van der Veer; and other) that allow simple and reliable measurement.
  5. How may the techniques indicated in 4. be applied early in the design process to provide relevant design guidelines and ideas, and how may the techniques be used for usability analysis during design.


The project aims at investigating the relation between (1) use related characteristics of a design; and (2) characteristics of knowledge and understanding of prospective users; for (3) envisioned (future) systems and systems intended for incidental use; in order (4) to develop design guidelines. The following aspects need to be investigated:

  1. Use related characteristics of a design include: functionality, dialogue, and perceptual aspects of the user interface and the "look-and-feel", procedures in relation to actual use in the work situation and organization.
  2. Mental models as will be developed at fist contact with a system, or when confronted with a scenario of use for an envisioned system.
  3. "Envisioning" of usable systems and user centered design of systems for incidental use, intended to be used without training or introduction.
  4. Techniques and guidelines for applying results of feed back from mental models of prospective users to design decisions related to functionality, dialogue, representations, and the incorporation of future technology in the task situation and organization..


  1. Validity will be assessed by observation of use of the intended systems in the "natural" context of use.
  2. Participant observation of relevant design processes in industry will lead to identification and analysis of design decisions that might benefit from knowledge of mental models of future users.
  3. Based on state of the art literature on cognitive ergonomic aspects of the concept of mental model, and from the results of 1. and 2. A conceptual framework will be developed aimed at supporting the design of the intended type of systems.
  4. Investigation of existing techniques and measurements in relation to the conceptual framework will be the base for the development of a reliable , valid, and easy to use assessment technique for mental models. This development will require considerable empirical study in collaboration with design teams.
  5. Based on the conceptual framework the assessment techniques developed, and the experiences in design in practice, design guidelines will be developed. These guidelines will have a template structure, similar to design patterns. They will contain design meta-knowledge that is generic for certain problems of use. In applying them and assessing the relevant mental models, they may result in actual guidelines for design decisions. In addition, techniques will be provided for usability analysis during the design process.


  1. the first report, covering the period Mai 1 - December 31, 2000, can be downloaded here (MS word) .
  2. the second report, covering the period January 1 - April 30, 2001, can be downloaded here (MS word) .
  3. the third report, covering the period May 1, 2001 - May 1, 2002, can be downloaded here (MS word) .
  4. Appendix A can be downloaded here (MS word) .
  5. Appendix B can be downloaded here (MS word) .
  6. Appendix C can be downloaded here (MS word) .
  7. Appendix D can be downloaded here (MS word) .
  8. Appendix E can be downloaded here (MS word) .
  9. Appendix F can be downloaded here (MS word) .

Research institutes

Project leader and researcher:

Project leader: Dr. Gerrit C. van der Veer, Vrije Universiteit,

Project partner: Dr. Paul van der Vet, Universiteit Twente,

Project partner: Dr. Herre van Oostendorp, Universiteit Utrecht,

Researcher: Dr. Maria del Carmen Puerta Melguizo

Researcher: Drs. Cristina Chisalita

Industries involved

Dutch tax Office, Centrum voor proces- en productontwikkeling, Nl

Philips Design, Eindhoven, NL