Mental models for designers from Dropbox

Interested in learning about Dropbox product design? Take a look at the tools we use to solve problems, make decisions and share ideas.

Several years ago, I was preparing to submit new projects for management consideration. The research was thorough. The interactions were thoughtful. Pixels perfect.

But when I started explaining the direction of our team s design, things went wrong. People were a little confused and didn t know how we make decisions. In the end, it was difficult for them to agree, and the whole presentation was on me.

After this review, I realized that:

  • I have not shown how we solved the problem
  • I have not formed a clear basis for making decisions
  • I have not prepared a story about our decision

It turns out that being a designer is much more than just designing.

But how do you go beyond your core design skills? Use mental models: simple explanations of how something in this world works. For example, supply and demand, which helps us understand economics, or Pareto s law, which helps us understand cause and effect.

To help you get started, I ve compiled a set of seven of my favorite mental models that I, as a designer, use on a daily basis. They can help you solve problems, make decisions, and share ideas.

Models for problem solving

First principles

Are you looking for an innovative solution to a complex problem? Try to approach the problem using these first principles.

To do this, take your problem and:

  1. Break it down into main parts
  2. Reconfigure these parts to create a solution

Last year I applied this model to one of the projects when we started by posing a problem. I broke the problem down into major parts, then looked at each one and reconfigured it to create a solution. Read more about first principles here.

Mental models for designers from Dropbox


Are you looking for only the best scenario for solving a problem? Try inversion to get a 360-degree view of your problem. To do this, instead of thinking about ideal solutions, think about bad solutions and then ask yourself, “How can we avoid this?”

This method is great for situations where you want to approach a problem from an alternative perspective, or when you want to make sure you avoid the worst case scenario.

Mental models for designers from Dropbox

We applied it with our user experience team, which is dedicated to customer support. Before starting the project, we met with two high-level agents, and they helped us brainstorm all the possible options when this feature might not work for our users. They helped shape our perspective on the problem, rather than aligning with an early idea. Read more examples of inversion here.

Mental models for designers from Dropbox

Abstraction ladder

Want to make sure you can see the forest behind the trees? Try the abstraction ladder to get above your problem.

Mental models for designers from Dropbox
  1. Start with an original challenge: Design the best can opener
  2. Then ask “how” questions to get more specific statements. How can we design the best can opener? → Make it more attractive. Color it red and add a twist!
  3. You can also ask why questions to get more abstract statements. Why would anyone need a can opener? → To get food out of the can
  4. Now ask the question “how” at a higher level. How could we think of a better way to get food out of the can → We could redesign the top of the can so that the lid can be pulled out.
Mental models for designers from Dropbox

Decision Making Models

Model with difficult choices

What decision are you making? A difficult-to-choose model is a great way to understand this.

Make your decision and see:

  1. How effective is it
  2. How easy is it to compare options
Mental models for designers from Dropbox

Many times I think I’m making a difficult choice, but it’s really a “big choice” or “a choice between apples and oranges.” This framework can help you differentiate between these types of solutions.

Speed ​​versus quality

Should you optimize for speed or quality? This is a question we often ask ourselves. And it all boils down to two things: your confidence that you are solving the right problem, and your confidence in the solution you are designing.

Mental models for designers from Dropbox
  • Low confidence in the importance of the problem? Focus on speed.
  • High confidence in the problem, but low confidence in the chosen solution? Focus equally on speed and quality.
  • High confidence in the problem and its solution? Focus on quality.

Read more about this model in Brandon Chu s article here.

Models for communication

“What? So what? What now?”

Are you giving quick feedback? Method “What? So what? What now?” it s an easy way to structure your feedback.

Mental models for designers from Dropbox

Diamond model

Are you preparing long forms of content (like presentations or large documents)? The diamond model is great for building structure around your main idea.

Mental models for designers from Dropbox
  1. Warning: start with history, statistics or something similar
  2. Main topic: Briefly introduce the main topic you will cover
  3. Preview: Quick view of subtopics.
  4. Subtopics: delve deeper into subtopics
  5. Summary: summarize your subtopics
  6. Conclusion: draw a perfect vision of the future
  7. Call to action: invite your audience to act or make a decision

Try them

These models are only valuable if you use them. So as you sit at your desk trying to solve a problem, make a decision, or communicate an idea, try one of these mental models. If you will be using multiple models, you will be well prepared for the next challenging design challenge.

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