Why are conceptual models important for good product design and user experience?
Imagine introducing the concept of an ebook to someone who has never used one and has always read a book in the physical format. So how will you explain how an ebook is to be read and navigated to a newbie user? Even though they have never used an ebook, they still have a mental picture of what to expect and assume what the book will look like, other functions it will offer like turning a page or bookmarking it. And thus, they already have a mental model of the ebook, even before using it.
This is where conceptual models come into play. But before we delve into what a conceptual model means for good product design, let us delve into the mind of the newbie user. The newbie user interprets the way a product works in the form of a mental model. So, a mental model is the user’s expectation about how something should work and is formed on the prior experiences and assumptions of the user. Now that we have established what a mental model is, why is it so crucial to conceptual model? The answer is that the conceptual model is dependant and influenced by a user’s mental model, so much so that it affects the product’s success and user experience. Everything designed for user experience is ultimately about the match or mismatch between the user’s mental models and the product's conceptual model.
So, let's understand what conceptual models are.
Conceptual models help define the use of a product by making it more predictable for the user. By revealing its affordances, signifiers, constraints, and mapping, the product's behaviour is made easier to understand. This allows the user to create mental modes/models of perceived actions and their feedbacks. It helps one navigate or plan through the possibilities of using that product, taking control of the product and utilising it to the fullest, ultimately leading to a holistic experience. Thus, conceptual models are valuable in providing an understanding of a product. Without them, a user is blind and the whims of singular linear prompts and directions.
This leads to a situation where the user is never in control and never fully able to appreciate the product in totality. Think of a washing machine whose conceptual model is easy to understand and learn. The washing machine with its affordances (buttons), signifiers (the labelled programs), feedback (error code), mapping and constraints makes it very easy for us to use. More importantly, it notifies us when there is something wrong with the machine in the form of an error code that can be checked and rectified by reading the manual. This form of feedback from the washing machine has helped develop a good user experience and made it an irreplaceable part of our daily lives. Moreover, prior experience with using a washing machine makes it very easy to use a washing machine of a different make or model as the mental model of the product remains pretty much the same. Hence, a good conceptual model leads to a good user experience and a healthy human-machine relationship that is robust and responsive not only when things are working but more so when things go wrong as well.
Conceptual models are usually not very complex for everyday objects and appliances. And for most mechanical tools, they do not even exist. A scissor can be used in a particular way and only has one rudimentary function. And thus, it does not have a conceptual model. Its success only depends on its mechanics, ergonomics, and feasibility. The conceptual model of a refrigerator is simple. Since it needs temperature control for the compartments, it has knobs that increase or reduce the temperature. Here the knobs do not necessarily specify the temperature but specify a high - low or represent a number. So, the temperature control is turned from a technical and accurate temperature measure into something more abstract and based on perception with the help of a conceptual model. These knobs are supported with graphics (signifiers) that prompt and tell us which level is suitable in summers or winters. Here we actually have no knowledge of how the knob changes the actual temperature or compression of the refrigerator, but we are still able to operate and use it. Thus, a refrigerator is an example of a successful conceptual model.
A smartphone or computer has a more complex conceptual model. The information is stored in these devices in the form of binary code and is revealed to us through a beautiful graphical user interface. This enables us to click and tap our way through the device, perceive, store and receive information. And remember it through layers of conceptual folders that have graphics and icons for better memorabilia and aesthetic connection. Here the conceptual model is just a digital interface between hardware and code in the back end merged with beautiful imagery in the front end.
Thus, we can say that conceptual models begin by designing what to design. They use mapping to critically differentiate the product and its affordances, signifiers, constraints, and feedback into a front-end process – something that the user interacts with, and the back-end process - where all of the machine’s work and its technical knowledge is applied. They need to study and cater to the mental model that is usually formed and based on prior experiences and assumptions. And most importantly, conceptual models may or may not be complex but are definitely not linear.
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.
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