When I'm thinking about buying something, I typically move through a process that starts with brand awareness, moves through consideration of specific product alternatives, and ends with buying one specific product that hopefully meets all my requirements.
A "considered purchase" is one that follows this process. Roughly, a considered purchase is for an item that I'll get in trouble with my spouse over, if I turn up at home having purchased one and not checked with her.
Reference search (Google & Bing, for example) has been the tool of choice for finding information on the web in the considered purchase process. But with the expanding set of tools more grounded in social media, it's increasingly clear that we have other search and search-like tools that should be able to help in evaluating purchase alternatives.
What's a Mental Model?
I've been wondering about the "mental model" that a person has when they use search and search-related tools, and how that mental model guides usage and expectations around results in the considered product purchase process.
Roughly, it's the description that a person has in his or her head that they use to characterize a tool -- the conditions under which they should use that tool, what sorts of results they can obtain, and when not to use it. A mental model is something that's built-up in the head of a person from teaching and from experience, and it's related to the notion of a brand.
To me, a brand is the promise to a person of an experience they can have in the future, given a set of experiences they've had in the past. So in a sense, a mental model about any given tool or service is the thing in a person's head that results from past experience, and that guides that person's future selection and usage of that tool.
With reference search, my personal mental model is pretty simple. I provide a set of keywords, and the search engine returns a set of pages, where each page in the result set is guaranteed to include the words that I've provided. Further, my results set is ranked by relevance, meaning that the documents that are most "about" my search terms are at the top of the ranked results list.
So where, in the considered purchase process, do I use reference search? I have to know about a specific purchase option, in order to be able to run an effective search. Let's say that I'm interested in getting a new flatscreen TV. I'm not going to search for "flatscreen TV" at Bing, as my mental model for reference search tells me that I'll get about a zillion results, none of them particularly useful. (That said, Bing's "related searches" feature is actually pretty helpful here.)
What other sorts of search-like tools could I use? I can think of three, right away.
As I thought more about my TV purchase question, I started to wonder what my mental model should be of each of these additional services. For reference search, it's pretty clear that I need to have a focused, specific search term, in order to get useful results. What should my mental model be for each of these other services, and how can I best use them in moving forward in my considered product purchase process?
I still need a pretty specific search term. I can search for "flatscreen tv" in real-time search, but what's my mental model of what I'm doing?
My mental model is that I'm looking for recent results (minutes old) that are also truly about my search term. So if there's a product recall, or a big (and current) debate about flatscreen TVs, then the results will be helpful. But in looking for help in thinking about my purchasing options, not so much.
Social Media Systems
Here, I can ask real people for help. What are my mental models there, and how do they guide my tool selection, to better-inform my decision-making?
Inside my Facebook account, I can use the status field to answer their persistent question, "What's on your mind?" I can type in "Any preferences on flatscreen TVs?" But what's my mental model in doing this? What sort of thing should I type into that field, and what's the resulting experience going to be like?
Like most people, I believe that what I type into that question field will be broadcast to the people with whom I'm immediately linked (one degree away in the social graph). So my mental model is that I'm asking a question of real humans that I already know, not asking an algorithm to match my text against existing pages.
I imagine that some subset of my friends will see this question, and that they might choose to comment on it, inside Facebook, or that they'll get in touch directly. But am I really directly asking a question? What I'm doing is more like mumbling to myself at a cocktail party, and hoping that some kind soul with a right to an opinion overhears me and takes pity.
What's my mental model here? My mental model of Quora is that I'm asking a question of a bunch of people, but I don't know who they are, and I can't control whether or not they see my question. So that seems like a fair bet, and probably better than Facebook.
Why? Because while I'm linked to a few hundred people on Facebook, it seems to me that the chances of finding a flatscreen TV expert in all of Quora is better than finding one in my set of existing Facebook friends.
By this point in my flatscreen journey, I've decided that Samsung makes some interesting flatscreen TVs, so I log in to my Quora account and ask this question: "Opinions about Samsung's LED LCD TVs?" A little terse, I'll admit, but hey -- I'm asking a bunch of punters I've never met, and I'm not feeling like being verbose.
Within 60 seconds, some person that I've never met and don't know has added a sub-text to my question, as follows: "Looking for opinions on the quality of Samsung's LED LCD TVs, whether they think it's good value relative to alternative options, etc."
I don't like that particular sub-text. The use of "they" out-of-the-blue like that, bugs me. Who are "they"? So I edit the sub-text of the question to read, "Looking for opinions on the quality of Samsung's LED LCD TVs, based on actual post-purchase experience." That seems more reasonable to me. Hey, I might not know the people in Quora, but I want to express myself (somewhat) clearly.
Then a few minutes later, some other person edits my question to read "What do people think about Samsung's LED LCD TVs?" OK, I can pick a nit as well as the next person, but really... was there value in removing "opinions" and putting in "What do people think?"
So what's my mental model now? If I want to get into an editing battle with random people, then I know where to go. But asking a question and having it answered? Not so far!
My mental models for reference search, and for real-time search, are pretty well defined. I know what to type into such systems; I have a clear sense of what I'm doing, and what I can expect back. I understand how I can use these tools to move productively through my considered product purchase process.
But my mental models for what it means to ask a question inside Facebook, or inside Quora, aren't quite so well defined. It still isn't clear to me exactly how to use these services to best effect.
And for such search and search-related services to really see a lot of use, the brand promise -- or mental model -- needs to be crystal clear to the average user. And I believe that right now, it isn't.