When a user reports an issue they’re having with the product you support, how do you know what to do next? How do you identify the source of the issue? How do you know where to start investigating?
I’ve mulled over these questions countless times as I tried to explain to coworkers how I troubleshoot. When someone describes an issue, it always seems like the possible causes just pop into my head, unbidden. But of course that isn’t it at all — I have gotten better at troubleshooting our products over time, and that didn’t happen by chance.
When I read Jim Grey’s post How to Hire an Entry-Level Tester, his key traits for testers meshed with how I understand troubleshooting and this trait stood out:
Create mental models: Building a mental model of a system, even if it’s incomplete or partially inaccurate, helps a tester orient themselves to a problem and generate ideas on how to work through it.
When I look at a problem, I fit it into my mental model of the product and use that model to start investigating. On my team, I’ve started to explicitly discuss mental models, how to build and expand them, and how to use them to get better at supporting and troubleshooting our products. Rather than trying to summarize the things we’ve talked about on my team, I’ll share the introduction to mental models I wrote recently, as part of a troubleshooting training I’m developing for WordPress.com support.
A mental model is “an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world” (Wikipedia). In other words, a mental model is how you understand or represent a real thing in a more simplified or abstract way.
Mental Model of a Bicycle
To get a better sense of mental models, let’s look at an example: Bicycles. Not everyone understands every part of a bicycle, but even if you just ride a bicycle now and then you probably have a concept of what it is and — at least to some extent — how it works. That is your mental model.
A user’s mental model
As a bicycle user, your mental model might be very simple — all you need to know are the parts you interact with or a general sense of what makes a bicycle different from, say, a tricycle or a car. In this simple mental model, you’ll see that the bicycle includes a frame, handlebars, a seat, and two wheels: