What are conceptual models?
When we start designing, we almost always begin with an idea. This rough idea is then detailed out and cemented as a plan, followed by an action. The rough idea that we develop further with the help of iterations is a concept. Thus, a concept is an abstract idea or a plan, and a conceptual model is a representation of the system of this idea. Then, what exactly is a conceptual model in product design?
A conceptual model is an abstraction of a piece of design that we want to bring into the world. In simple words, it is an explanation of how the product works or is supposed to work. This is achieved with the help of other principles such as affordances, signifiers, mapping, and constraints of a product. It is similar to a user interface or a graphic user interface of a product, wherein the interface simplifies the use of the product for better understanding by us. The interface makes it appear as if all functionality is happening on the interface itself.
Take the example of a switchboard that hides its wires. The actual mechanism – the relay of information by the wires all happens behind the switchboard. But it appears as if everything (all functions) is taking place right in front of us. Thus, a conceptual model creates a front end of the affordances and signifiers for complex mechanisms and a back end where the actual work is happening. Here, the mechanism of switches, the affordance, and feedback that are never revealed to us are all behind the switchboard. But, we interact with the signifier (buttons) and actual product definition that is on the outside of the switchboard.
Conceptual models for a product or device are not a straight line. Rather they are a series of the intersections of multiple lines directed to an end result which, in turn, account for a good user experience. For example, a corkscrew that has a very direct and specific goal has a very simple conceptual model and user interaction. Whereas ordering food online through an app has many hidden or internalised actions that rely on the users' interaction with the product. Thus, a product or device often has multiple conceptual models that define its use and aesthetics for people. However, complex conceptual models are not to be equated with multiple conceptual models. More often than not, complex models lead to bad product design and user experience.
Then, what accounts for good conceptual models in product design? Good conceptual models are easy to understand or perceive and are retained in our minds. The way a product works is interpreted in our minds as mental models. A mental model is the user’s underlying expectation about how something should work. It is formed based on what we already do, our prior experiences with similar products, or by the assumptions made based on product appearance (perceived affordances).
We have certain expectations when driving a car or a vehicle, like the things we can interact with, what the car is capable of doing and how we should appropriately drive in our country. All of this forms a mental model of the car which makes it easier for us to interact and use it. But not all of us have the same mental model. The same product can have multiple mental models for different people or even a single person. Here, each mental model might deal with a particular use case or function of the product that might complement or be conflictual to each other.
Conceptual models are information-based, so they are sometimes directly perceived from the product. Sometimes taught from person to person based on the use case and sometimes taught by manuals. Take a complex strategy game like chess. One can learn to navigate the game by directly playing it and through practice. But since the game is vast and complex, different players have their own strategies and gameplay. The gameplay of Anand Vishwanathan differs greatly from his opponent and keeps evolving after every move from his opponent. A player can change the way they play the game by learning the strategy of another player. Also, they can get more expert or community advice through forums, groups, or interaction with varied players. Thus, the mental model of a person is constantly evolving and subject to change. It is influenced by new experiences, technologies, and daily life.
A driverless car without steering might be painted as the future of the automobile industry (and it might be so!). But, however unique this piece of technology is, it is unlikely that we will adopt it. Why? Because it does not have a steering wheel! The very marker of a car in our mental model. Here, the conceptual model is far too removed from the current mental model for using the car.
Thus, understanding and designing for a mental model involve a deeper understanding of the thought processes and emotional responses of the users. And these are independent of the product to be designed. Also, while mental models are unique to each person, we can still uncover common patterns in them. Identifying these common patterns and markers and incorporating them as conceptual models increases the chances of designing a good product and user experience. The main takeaway is that user experience can be analysed and not designed as it is the effect of the product. But what can be designed is a product with clear instructions (conceptual models) that are easy to understand while hoping they provide a good user experience. Thus, the holistic framework of conceptual models is an assembly of perceived information that comes from all of the principal elements of affordances, signifiers, constraints, and mappings of a product.
* * *
About the Writer
Malika Vaidya is an architect and writer. She is the Co-Founder of Architecture Pulse, a blog that explores the intersection of architecture and society. She is a graduate of the Rachna Sansad’s Academy of Architecture (AoA), Mumbai. She has interned at One Habitat Studio and The Origin.
About the Illustrator