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Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning: Concept Models

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Concept models help you understand the different kinds of information that your web site needs to display and can help build your comfort level with a project's scope and the related domain of information. Dan M. Brown explains concept models and shows you how to use them.
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A concept model is a diagram that shows the relationships between different abstract ideas. You can apply the concept modeling technique in a variety of circumstances to explain different aspects of a web site. Also known as concept maps or affinity diagrams.

Concept Models At-A-Glance

Concept models describe structures, how different ideas relate to each other. The format doesn't prescribe particular kinds of relationships, nor does it assume any specific types of ideas. As an artifact of the web design process, it can capture the range of different kinds of information to be represented on the site.

Purpose—What are concept models for?

There really is only one reason to create a concept model: to understand the different kinds of information that the site needs to display. This structure can drive requirements for the page designs, helping you to determine how to link templates to each other. With the structure ironed out, you might also use the model to help scope your project—determining what parts of the site to build when.

Audience—Who uses them?

Use concept models for yourself. Ultimately, they are the most selfish, introspective, and self-indulgent artifact, a means for facilitating your own creative process.

Scale—How much work are they?

You can spend as much or as little time as you need, but it can be difficult to predict how much time to dedicate. The effort here isn't creating the illustration, but dissecting the various information that constitutes the site.

Context—Where do they fall in the process?

Concept models are tools for helping you to frame the design problem, so build them at the beginning of your process. Of course, you might realize late in a project that you needed to spend more time uncovering the site's underlying structure. Further along in the timeline, concept models can help provide context for existing design work.

Format—What do they look like?

Concept models are, at their heart, circles connected by lines. Such a simple format lends itself to some embellishment to highlight different kinds of concepts and relationships.

In addition to communicating ideas, design artifacts help you, the designer, work through difficult problems. Putting a structure on paper, sketching a screen layout, or summarizing user needs can all help you find new insights and new inspiration. I won't pretend to understand the neuroscience behind this. All I can tell you is, from experience, whenever I think I can neglect this part of the process I'm proven dead wrong.

Concept models swing more toward the personal side of the spectrum than perhaps any other diagram in this book. It is the diagram I most often keep to myself, rarely sharing it with clients and occasionally not even other team members. It is one of the first diagrams I build, almost immediately as I start familiarizing myself with a project's requirements. It helps build my comfort level with a project's scope and the related domain of information.

I transition concept models from hand-drawn sketches to vector art faster than any other diagram. Putting them into a diagramming application lets me manipulate their structure and content quickly, allowing me to see the ideas in new ways.

What ideas? What is it that a concept model helps to envision? Web sites have underlying structures: More than just navigation menus, a site's skeleton is the collection of stuff that makes it what it is. Imagine taking the concept of "article" or "story" away from CNN.com. The site would be fundamentally different.

Table 4.1. Different kinds of content that typically appears on sites.

Type of Site

Fundamental "Stuff"

News

Stories, topics, departments, authors

Intranet

Assets, people, events, product sales support

Commerce

Products, departments, account, wish list

Product marketing

Product descriptions, product comparisons, support, services

The complexity of web sites is not just in the level of interaction they permit, but also in their sophistication in dealing with the underlying information. The role of the concept model is to help designers iron out the structure for that information. Through modeling the concepts, designers learn:

  • How to link content together
  • How to expose content at different areas of the site
  • What kinds of information should be associated with each concept
  • The kinds of interactions users might expect with different kinds of information
  • The relative priorities of different kinds of content or features
  • The concepts that will serve as central "home" areas of the web site
  • Which concepts will provide a context to view other kinds of information
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