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Ever wonder why some web design rules are sacred and others are more… flexible? It boils down to mental models.

Mental models are all about how we instinctively expect things to work, based on our past experiences. It’s like how you automatically reach for your toothbrush or deodorant in the bathroom without thinking. You know where they are because that’s where they’ve always been. This is your brain on autopilot, thanks to habits formed over time. Muscle memory.

In web design, users have similar expectations. They expect navigation at the top, contact info in the footer—because that’s what they’ve experienced repeatedly. Messing with these mental models can really throw off your users. It’s like moving their toothbrush and watching them reach for… well, nothing.

Here are a few web design standards I’d think twice before changing:

  • Navigation at the top: It’s where users look to find their way around. Don’t make them search for it.
  • Contact info in the footer: It’s the last place people look before they leave your site; make sure they find what they need.
  • The Home Button: Users expect clicking on a website’s logo in the upper left corner will take them back to the homepage. This universal design pattern is deeply ingrained in web navigation behavior.
  • Scrolling: There is a natural expectation that scrolling down a page will reveal more content. Users expect continuous scrolling or “infinite scroll” on sites with extensive content like social media feeds.
  • Links Behavior: Users expect that text highlighted in a different color, especially blue and underlined, is clickable and will take them to another page related to that text.
  • Swipe Gestures: On mobile devices, users expect that swiping horizontally will change content such as photos or pages, and swiping vertically will scroll through the current page or list.
  • Icons with Universal Meaning: Certain icons carry universal meanings—like a magnifying glass for search, a house for home, a gear for settings, or a trash can for delete. These icons should perform their expected actions to avoid confusing users.
  • Progress Indicators: When performing actions that require loading, users expect visual cues like progress bars or spinning circles to indicate that the process is ongoing and to give an indication of how long it might take.
  • Modal Windows: Users understand that when they perform certain actions, a modal window might pop up to confirm the action, provide more options, or alert them to information. These should not be overused to prevent frustration.
  • Buttons – Their various states, interactions, and action.
  • Content hierarchy – People assume that the biggest information is the most important.

Breaking these could frustrate users, disrupt their flow, and maybe even drive them away. And that’s the last thing we want.

Understanding and respecting these mental models isn’t just good UX; it’s good business. Stick to the script where it counts, innovate where you can add real value. Want to dive deeper into designing with mental models in mind?

Want to chat with co-owners Meg and Josh at Wizardly about a future project?

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