What is User Modeling?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Modeling is the creation of simulations in order to make judgments in advance of actual events. Modeling and simulation are used for a variety of purposes, including strategic decision-making. Specifically, user modeling is a cross-disciplinary analysis of how humans act within specific computer environments. Understanding how users will behave can assist in the building of better websites and software applications and those that work well for a wider array of users, including those with disabilities.

User modeling is a cross-disciplinary analysis of how humans act within specific computer environments.
User modeling is a cross-disciplinary analysis of how humans act within specific computer environments.

A primary use of user modeling is to understand how users with different attributes are likely to interact with a user interface. Attributes include skill level from novice to expert as well as other important user attributes. These include attitudes, beliefs, goals, interests, learning styles, plans, and preferences. It is possible for very different users to use the same website or software application, and user modeling is a step towards knowing what to expect. User modeling is very important in creating e-learning modules for self-tuition, since there is no teacher present to make assessments about student characteristics.

User models are created in different ways for adaptive systems and adaptable systems. An adaptable system is one over which the user is given some control. This could be through preferences or customizable elements. User modeling in an adaptable system is both performed in advance to create useful choices and ongoing as users take advantage of those choices. Data can be collected on the choices users make to guide further development. A simple example is systems with a ‘Basic’ and ‘Advanced’ interface that allows the user to choose which way to interact.

Adaptive systems are those in which the interface and/or content is structured to adapt to the user as the user’s skills, preferences, and abilities become known and change. Adaptive systems may use preferences and disabling or masking of expert components in order not to overwhelm novices and to only provide beginners with features that user modeling suggests that they need. In order to adapt, the system may rely on a variety of direct and indirect input. Direct input includes preferences, assessments, and choices. Indirect input includes user classifications that are — at least initially — based on assumptions that may be stereotypical. Examples of adaptive systems include HyperAudio®, a portable guide for museum visitors; the Office Assistant in Microsoft® Office® ’97 that popped up and offered help to users; and P-TIMS®, a financial management system.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to EasyTechJunkie about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


I just finished up a graduate degree in Library Science and we talked a lot about user modeling. This applied to both physical and digital environments.

In the physical realm, you have to put a lot of thought into how your library is set up, where the fiction and non fiction sections will be, how many tables and computers you will have, how the lighting will work. You also need to figure out how you are going to shelve the books. Many alternatives to the dewey decimal system are begin developed to provide an easier user experience.

There is also the digital catalog to consider. This is the way that most people find what they want in a library. In a big system the online catalog gets used tens of thousands of times. User modeling helps software designers develop the most user friendly program possible.

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