Mental Models by Sheldon Reiffenstein

Mental Models

The Science of Seeing and Responding to Visual Stimulus

Family tree, barriers to free speech, time flying…in the time it takes you to read these three metaphors, you’ve very likely formed images in your mind that help you give meaning to them. We do it all the time, use “mental models” to orient our thinking, understanding and response to words and images.

“Mental models are representations that embody information about the structure, function, relationships, and other characteristics of objects in the world, and thus can help people explain and predict the behavior of things in the world around them,” wrote K.J.W. Craik in his 1943 book, The Nature of Explanation. Craik was an original thinker behind how the mind forms models of reality and uses them to predict similar future events.

This “science” of mental models plays a major role in how people view the world. When we see, the light reflects off an object, enters our eyes through our pupils, is inverted on the retina, then zips along the optic nerve to the visual cortex where the image is reconstructed and classified as to what it is. But images are not static in the brain. As the image moves along the optic nerve, other parts of the brain are stimulated as well. Not only do we see an object for its shape, its location in space, and orientation to the objects around it, other areas of the brain respond and light up based on memory, emotion, and the senses of smell, sound, taste and touch. A musician sees a musical score and the melody pops in her head. We greet a friend we haven’t seen for a year and remember the great time we had together at the county fair. A guy seeing a picture of fish and chips, starts salivating.

In a 1986 article “Cognitive Science and Science Education”, psychologist and Harvard professor Susan Carey wrote that mental models “help shape actions and behavior, influence what people pay attention to in complicated situations, and define how people approach and solve problems.”

In our business, Maga employs an understanding of mental models in designing our visual solutions. We construct our visualizations to reflect our customer’s mental models. How do they expect something to work and how do we capture that visually? This is crucial to being successful at using visualization to influence, educate, and change behavior among stakeholders. A graphic image that doesn’t accomplish this is simply a pretty illustration.

Mental models are catalysts for successful information seeking; thus are useful in situations where problem-solving behavior is required. This is a critical factor behind how Maga designs visualizations. The majority of our customers are seeking insight into highly complex business with no obvious solution at hand. Mental models are one starting point for our team of strategists and designers as they create visualizations that smooth out the impact of change management efforts, system introductions, or process transformations.



Taking mental models into account when creating new visuals can help diminish the concerns people have with a new initiative. Then with a powerful visual a new mental model becomes the new paradigm.


Carey, S. (1986). Cognitive science and science education. American Psychologist, 41, 1123-1130. Reprinted in Open University Press, Readings in the Psychology of Education and in C. Hedley, J. Houtz, & A. Baratta (eds.), Cognition, Curriculum, and Literacy. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1990.

Craik KJW. The Nature of Explanation. Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, UK: 1943.

Borgman CL. The user’s mental model of an information retrieval system: An experiment on a prototype online catalog. Int J Man-Mach Stud. 1986;24(1):47–64.


PopTech 2014 by Scott Williams, CEO, Maga Design Group, Inc.

59 minutes until PopTech 2014!!
It’s like traveling to see a long lost friend:  its been 3 years since we have made it to Camden, Maine for the annual PopTech conference.  I like to say it’s the one week a year that I’m truly glad to be a human being.  So many varied speakers from all walks of life, all intent on changing the world.  The conference, unlike Ted or any large conference in a major city, is focused on keeping the speakers and attendees in a continuous face to face dialogue.  The lunches, dinners, breakout sessions, and activities are all occurring where Camden-ers are living their day-to-day lives.  Maga has been a part of this conference on and off for over 10 years.  We have had the chance to be here with our clients (IBM, Nat Geo), and meet many friends – P&G, SpaceX, Dan Pink, Malcolm Gladwell – along the way.  In prepping for this year’s session about Rebellion – I am brought to mind 4 of my favorite presentations over the years.  All content from the conference is free – check these out !!!
More to come…. (we will be posting to maga’s twitter, facebook and instagram) throughout the week … #magapoptech

Visual Super Powers: Dig South in Charleston, SC

By Scott Williams Founder and CEO of Maga Design

In today’s world, it is increasingly difficult to attain the clarity needed for organizational decision-making. At Maga Design, we’ve spent the past decade creating maps to help organizations see and define their futures. Like Wolverine (my favorite superhero), maps have powerful healing agents that help organizations overcome any toxin, especially complexity.

Dig South: Visual Super Powers HD Version from Maga Design on Vimeo.

Data Collection: Developed using visual design and human behavior By: Patrick Johnson, Design Strategist UI/UX

By: Patrick Johnson, Design Strategist UI/UX


How do you keep strangers engaged while asking them a series of questions for which you need to compile honest and accurate responses?

That was the question my team and I faced when designing for a data collecting exercise at Dig South, the premier startup expo in Charleston, South Carolina. We wanted to gather data and learn more about event goers and understand what they liked, why they were there and what challenges they faced.

We knew, out of the gate, we only had a matter of minutes with each poll participant so we’d need a solution that could quickly and clearly explain what we were asking and how to respond. We searched for the right polling software or app, but came up with options that were too involved for users and didn’t offer the simplicity and visual angle we needed. So, we rolled up our sleeves and created and built our own app.

As a UI/UX (User Interface/User eXperience) Strategist, it is important to always focus on the user and how human behavior plays a role in what you develop; keeping mind that advancements in technology must work in balance with our current behaviors while influencing change for the better. This type of design thinking originated from my background in urban design where I used this thought process to create physical spaces where users felt connected to and could navigate easily upon their first experience. So when we built our polling app called POHLer, we kept it simple yet powerful and tapped into the specific behaviors and needs of our users.


Design Considerations: How They Influenced the Final Product

(Handy) Technology is our hook. Technology, such as tablets, gives users the ability to simply touch a device to operate it. By handing a user a tablet, we found they are more willing to complete a poll due to the intrigue and simplicity of the technology.

Keep visuals top of mind. Visuals are applied to each poll question we feature on the app. This helps users better understand the question so they can then more quickly process answer options, that in turn helps to provide more accurate selection and response process.

Keep it simple. Simple UI (user interface) components were designed for each process and layout of the app: Questions featured multiple-choice answers to increased the speed at which a user could take the poll and allowed for the direct comparison of data.

Don’t force it. Ever taken a survey and just selected answers so you could be done? That’s want we wanted to prevent. All of the questions asked were optional so a users never felt pressured to make a selection they weren’t confident about. This strategy helps reduce the stress on a user and provides more honestly with answers.

Show the impact. It’s critical to show users that their input matters and will make a difference. Otherwise why would they want to invest the time to offer their opinion? The results of the poll were posted live on display screens throughout the booth so users could see immediately how their answers stacked up with others. We also captured participant’s home zip codes and displayed the geographic results in order to showcase the geographical reach we were achieving.

Reduce reluctance. In order to spark interest we needed to create an environment that would draw participants in, make them feel comfortable, and intrigue them to take the poll. In order to accomplish this we used a mix of monitor displays that showcased result and a video explaining what we were doing. We also incorporated furniture that you would find in a home such as a wood dinning table with chairs, couch and rug. This gave the user a familiar context that was comforting which in turn help to increase participation and interest.

All of these components came together to produce a final product and process that is helping us gather information in a simple yet effective manner. Each time we utilize POHLer we find insights we would not have imagined and in turn this provides us with valuable user feedback. In all, it is about learning how to design technology so that it taps in to how people really interact with it.


Drawing Isn’t Just for Artists Anymore by Nicholas Duchesne

Writing, like it or not, is something that everyone has to deal with in the modern world. Whether it’s a school assignment, a text message or a business email, words have become the dominant form of communication in nearly every setting.

But what about drawing? Drawing not merely for artistic purposes, but to effectively communicate a point. Wired recently interviewed Michael Gough, head of experience design at Adobe, who lamented the general attitude towards drawing: it’s an artistic pursuit that only the talented should pursue. Instead, drawing is “as important a form of literacy as reading or writing,” Gough contends, something that should be taught to every kid growing up.

The biggest obstacle to a wide acceptance of drawing as a regular means of communication is the belief that drawing requires artistic talent. People are deemed to be talented artists at a young age and shuttled into artistic subjects, or are shepherded away into other subjects if their doodles aren’t immediately recognizable.

Yet just as an email doesn’t need to convey a deeper thematic meaning to be effective, a drawing need not be a masterpiece hung in the Louvre to be a worthwhile pursuit. Here at Maga our offices are filled with talented artists, yet most of the doodles on the whiteboards that make up our desks and walls are rough sketches. An art critic may not deem them to be “good” drawings, but they accomplish their purpose: to visualize and thus make understandable a complex issue, process or pattern.

Not a masterpiece by any means, but a valuable exercise nonetheless.

Not a masterpiece by any means, but a valuable exercise nonetheless.

So don’t be worried if your drawing doesn’t come out exactly as you envisioned. Most of the time, it isn’t the product that matters but the process. Grab a pencil, a marker, a stylus or a pastel. Sketch, scratch, draw or doodle whatever comes to mind, and new insights are on the way.

Storytelling on Top of Big Data – by Scott Williams

There’s a lot of buzz out there right now about the idea of big data and what you should (or should not) be doing with it. It’s accurately understanding the human component that is going to drive the success of strategies formed off big data. Businesses are scrambling to harness big data in order to make better decisions. Many people are touting the power of predictive analytics, these algorithms that ride on top of big data sets and make conjectures about what the future might look like based on the past.

There are a growing number of business platforms that produce visualizations from data – think bar charts, pie charts and scatter-plots – to support decision makers in strategizing for the future.  But if there’s one takeaway from the past that we can carry with us into this future, big data – driven world, it’s that human beings are unpredictable.  Therefore, any predictive analysis that is only keying off of the numbers isn’t telling you the whole story.

Big Data

Big Data

Most big data visualization engines take data that is automatically generated and plug it into a static display.  Increasingly there are more platforms that are allowing decision makers to interact with those displays and ask questions of the data. But very few tools are designed to marry up a database to the stories that you can’t get from numbers alone.  Unfortunately, we are still a few waves of development away from being able to plug our brains into an engine that can make sense of all that neurological activity.  Some information is only gotten through the act of circling up around a whiteboard and sharing experiences and perspectives.  The ability to capture those human insights and somehow package them to ride alongside of or on top of pure data analytics is the key to leveraging the full truth that big data stands to share.

So, what can we do in the mean time to tell these stories behind the numbers?  See Part II of “Storytelling on Top of Big Data” next week.

Creating a Visual Call to Action by Scott Williams, CEO and Founder of Maga Design

Reposted from the Dig South Blog at

The evidence of Superpowers is the ability to exert influence, to get people to take action. The ability to influence the behavior of a person, organization, process, or situation is not rooted in supernatural abilities, but in knowing how and when to utilize the right tools.  In my world, it’s about how to structure messaging, visually and syntactically, in order to have the maximum impact.

Because there’s only so much information a single page can hold, finding metaphors that convey your core message is a superpower. Deciding how to use the page’s remaining “real estate” and analyzing the key messages and their hierarchies is an important next step. After much reflection, and some important back and forth on the drawing board, the end product is a visual map that compels action.

We helped a software sales team put their new-to-the-world software offering on one page; less than a year later, IBM acquired the company.  These one-page communications, aka maps, spur this kind of tangible impact because they are the equivalent of internal cause marketing — marketing that makes ideas visible for the organization. When we provide this for our clients, we help them bring their most closely held visions to life. Maps let us do this, and mapmaking, this wondrous superpower, is enough to make anyone feel like bursting from a phone booth and taking on the world.

Maps are persistent reference tools, built to last and outliving the flavor of the day. Maps invite interaction, whether around a table, across a desk, up on a wall or on a computer screen: maps generate a reason to discuss and reframe organizational communications in visual terms.  Maps are a visual call to action.


What is Technology? By Scott Williams, CEO and Founder, Maga Design, Inc.

In the 1984 press release announcing the first Macintosh Advanced Personal Computer, Steve Jobs touted: “Macintosh easily fits on a desk, both in terms of its style of operation and its physical design . . . It takes up about the same amount of desk space as a piece of paper. With Macintosh, the computer is an aid to spontaneity and originality, not an obstacle. It allows ideas and relationships to be viewed in new ways. Macintosh enhances not just productivity, but also creativity.”

It’s just over 30 years later, and time has showed that in many ways, Jobs’ words ring true.  It would be impossible to quantify the units of productivity and creativity generated by Mac and other personal computing products, which includes a range of applications, and devices from tablets to phones, and everything in between.  Technological advancements are making us smarter, better, faster, and more connected every day.

And yet, we are in some ways feeling the burden of technology.  There is a lot of buzz about the need to unplug because of the overwhelming volume of information.  Technology, in some instances, actually limits productivity by making distractions more readily available, and detachment from other human beings easier to sustain (I’m looking at you, social media).  There are many forms of technology that actually interfere with our ability to exchange information, resulting in “Death by PowerPoint.”

But blaming the technology is too easy.  Technology isn’t the problem.  By definition, technology is “anything that you make in order to solve a problem, to improve upon existing technology, to achieve a goal, or to perform a specific function.”  By that logic, a pen and paper can be the most innovative form of technology available to you if you’re using it in the right way.  If you’re feeling like technology is failing you, ask yourself — am I just doing it wrong?

I work with hundreds of clients in the IT space, from the CIO of a major government agency in Washington to agile developers right here in Charleston. Most of the time, the problem isn’t technology. The problems are things like decision paralysis, misinformation, or lack of information altogether. These aren’t technology problems: these are human behavior problems.

Those who are truly successful in this Big Data, agile development, rapid prototyping world approach the use of technology like an orchestra conductor. I leverage existing technology, like graphic facilitation, design software, and custom interfaces, to help people and groups to map out their goals and identify the things they have to accomplish (or overcome) in order to achieve success. My technology doesn’t live in a single device or application. It’s a way of weaving together applications, tools, devices, information, and images to drive human behavior. Don’t focus on the symptom, which may be rooted in some form of technology, focus on the root cause of your problem — people.  And use technology to get them all to play in perfect harmony. This approach itself is a form of technology, and there are no minimum system requirements for it to function, perfectly.

Post authored by Scott Williams, Founder and CEO of MAGA Design for the Dig South Conference in Charleston, SC this week.

Visualizing the Outcome Means Seeing the Steps Along the Way by Sheldon Reiffenstein and Elizabeth Pfeifer

We have been taught over the past decade or so to visualize our goals. Teachers are told to plan their lessons with the end (the assessment of learning) in mind; doctors devise treatment plans consisting of various components to cure a patient; and athletes are coached to visualize the race in their heads before exiting the gate. Making it to the end,however, isn’t just about seeing a smiling student waving an “A+” test, a cancer patient sobbing with joy at being told they are in remission, or a skier crossing the finish line. Visualization also consists of being able to see – and thus plan for – the steps involved in the process.

The New York Times recently ran a terrific series of graphics involving Olympic Slalom gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin’s winning run. The graphic is composed of a series of pictures taken yard-by-yard just as she had trained to see it. This type of visualization has been called small multiples by Edward Tufte, who has been called the world’s leading analyst of visual information. Small multiples, says Tufte, “visually enforce comparisons of change,” allowing for uninterrupted visual reasoning.∗  Notice, at one point how Shiffrin almost loses control, falls back on her skis for the slightest moment, but recovers to win the gold medal. Small multiples are just one way to visualize the steps to success.

Business journeys rarely run completely smoothly. Almost inevitably, a business will “fall back on its skis” as some problem occurs that has the potential to knock it off course. But, like the teacher, the doctor and the athlete who have planned their course, when a customer can harness the power of the visualization process, they have the ability to readjust and, using their visual map of steps to successful outcome, they can recover and achieve their goal.


Tufte, E. (1990). Envisioning Information. (p. 67). Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press LLC.




Rules We Live By

In a recent post, our friends at FastCo Design spotlighted Alison Haigh’s beautiful reinterpretation of the periodic table — we, too, are big fans of this incredible design.

In Alison’s version of the periodic table, gone are the letter combinations standing in place of such obscure elements as flerovium and hassium. Instead, Alison’s minimalist yet elegant design shows the gradual increase in electrons among the elements, not only providing a new twist on a familiar subject but opening up the table to new and useful insights.

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