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Sidebar: Conceptual Models

A conceptual model is a mental map of the most important parts of a system and how they relate to each other. The term mental model is sometimes used as a synonym.

There is no “right” conceptual model of a given system. A street map of New York is useful for moving about on the surface, but unsuited for subway travel. A subway map presents a very different conceptual model of New York – useful for subway travel, but completely useless for moving about on the surface.

Whenever programmers design user interfaces, the conceptual model tends to grow out of the characteristics of the underlying system and the program’s implementation. This may be appropriate if you’re designing a tool for your fellow programmers, but less so if you’re designing a self-service kiosk for the general public.

The conceptual model that underlies a user interface is critical to its usability. You can avoid many design blunders by following these simple precepts:
  • Design the conceptual model from the user’s point of view rather than the system’s point of view.
  • Establish and validate the conceptual model early in the project.

No matter what the relationship between the user interface and the underlying system, the following design principle always holds:

“The user interface should be as close as possible to the conceptual model.”

Last edited Aug 28, 2008 at 1:08 PM by petterh, version 2