Release of M-Tool: A new tool to map mental models

Fisherman visualizing relationships

A new tool, called M-Tool, has been developed by researchers at Heidelberg University and Tanzanian Fisheries Research Institute (TAFIRI) as part of the MultiTip project. M-Tool allows users to capture people’s perceptions of complex systems (or mental models) online or with mobile devices and can be tailored to map perceptions of any system, process or phenomenon consisting of factors and causal links between them. For example, one can draw the processes that cause climate change, influence the fluctuation of a resource such as fish stock, or map the functioning of an economy. Respondents create visual diagrams of a particular system by organizing relevant factors and showing how they influence each other by connecting them. This is the first standardised tool that is accessible to less literate populations, as it does not require the respondent to write or read due to its inclusion of pictograms and audio instructions. Furthermore, the standardised set-up of the tool enables a direct comparison between groups of respondents. M-Tool can be used online or with an app, which can now be downloaded for free in app stores.

M-Tool has the following innovative features:

  • It’s a standardized tool – for comparing mental models
  • It’s suitable for large sample sizes
  • It does not require respondents’ literacy
  • No internet connection required during sampling if the app is used
  • It can be tailored to map perceptions of any system or phenomenon

M-Tool has been scientifically tested in two studies with Tanzanian fishers (van den Broek, Luomba, van den Broek & Fischer, forthcoming). These studies demonstrated that M-Tool (1) produces valid mental models, adequately capturing stakeholders’ mental models; (2) creates fuller mental models compared to straining interview techniques; (3) captures meaningful differences in mental models between different stakeholders; and (4) is usable in the field, and with less literate populations.

Researchers can use M-Tool to:

  • Compare mental models between groups of respondents (e.g. different types of stakeholders, expert vs. the general public, across cultures, communities from different geographical areas, comparing children’s mental models)
  • Assess changes in mental models over time, to investigate the stability of mental models or the impact of an intervention on the respondents’ mental model
  • To start a conversation between stakeholders on the functioning of a system and how to address challenges within the system.
  • Compare perceptions with the real state of a system.
  • Investigate the relation between (differences in) individual mental models and collective mental models composed in a group.

M-Tool can be tailored to measure perceptions of any system, as it allows the user to upload factors that are relevant depending on the system of interest. These factors can be generated through short interviews with the target group, or based on the literature. M-Tool also allows users to customize the audio instructions and videos and have the option to translate it to the appropriate language. M-Tool can be downloaded for free in the iOS app store as well as Google Play stores now. For more information and the online version, visit: