The Usability Blog
A Practical Guide to User Experience Insights

Website Personas: A Practitioner’s Guide: The Mental Model(2/7)

Mental models can mean different things to different people. Within the context of persona development, we use the term “mental model” to describe a cause-and-effect sequence that is essentially mechanical (predictable) in its operation. The mental model we use is derived from the work of psychologist Albert Ellis. He pioneered a clinical approach that began as Rational Emotive Therapy and is known these days as Rational Cognitive Behavior Therapy. It sounds very complicated. But it is not. If it were, it would be of little practical use in the world of personas, which have to be readily understood and easily applied to design decisions.

The central concept of Albert Ellis’ approach is his A-B-C model, in which A is an activating event; B is the belief system that interprets the activating event; and C is the consequent behavior.


If, for example, a snake were suddenly to appear in the waiting room of a train station, you might see several different reactions to it. Those reactions would depend, principally, on the beliefs the different people held about snakes. The snake’s appearance (activating event) sees one person jump on a chair, a second person take a quick look and continues reading the paper, while a third person picks it up and strokes its head. The people behave differently because they hold different sets of beliefs about snakes. The first believes that all snakes are dangerous and revolting; the second believes this snake to be non-poisonous and therefore no threat; the third believes the snake has put itself in danger and moves to protect it. The point is simply that it is easier to understand behavior if you can make visible the beliefs that determine it. The better you understand behavior, the greater your chance of influencing it. Our adaptation of Dr. Ellis’ A-B-C model moves it from a horizontal (left to right) orientation to a vertical (top-down) orientation and adds the dimension of Values.


We define Values as something we believe IN. Values are formed over time and tend to be resistant to change. An individual might believe, for example, IN education, or IN thrift, or IN perseverance. We define Beliefs as our attitudes or opinions. Beliefs can be identified by completing the sentence, “I believe (or think or feel) that … the world is flat; or that … Tokyo real estate is over-valued; or that … Brazil will win the next World Cup. Beliefs lead to our Behavior — the actions we take and the decisions we make every day of our lives. These Behaviors result in our Experiences, the accumulation of which we call our life. The bottom three of these elements work in an endless loop. Our experiences constantly modify our beliefs, which in turn lead to modified behavior, which result in new experiences, etc, etc.


From the design team’s perspective, the ability to identify the beliefs that dictate persona behaviors is invaluable. And in order to understand and interpret beliefs, it is essential to understand the experiences that forged them (or in some cases the values that guide them). These beliefs, behaviors, and experiences emerge from the research (which we will address in Post #3 of this series). The training component of this process (Post #5 of the series) centers on this feedback loop and forms the basis for predicting persona reaction to design ideas. This is how the model works.


Once the design team learns to use the model, recognition of causality and consequence becomes second nature. Once that happens, consensus-building becomes easier because team members can see in a common way the logic that applies to the different personas’ reactions. A design idea is never good or bad. It is simply something that a persona will react to in a specific way because of how their experiences have led them to see the world. Persona-derived decisions take the designers’ personalities and egos out of the discussion and allow the merits of an idea to be decided on its appeal to the individual personas. This is the primary reason our agency clients have seen such dramatic reduction in development time when using personas in this way. Design decisions are arrived at faster, with less friction, and with greater confidence and resilience – they don’t end up being revised (at greater cost) as decisions are second-guessed in the later stages of development. So embrace the value and the use of a mental model. You don’t have to use Albert Ellis. The world of behavior modification is filled with alternatives. Whatever model you choose needs to have a proven intellectual basis. The simpler it is, however, the greater likelihood it will be used as a design aide and decision-making tool. Simpler is better.

– Roger Beynon, CSO, Usability Sciences

Interested in talking with us about Personas? Contact us over at getdirection.com


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