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Concepts Matter

Imagine a concept model, designed for a news publishing service, that describes the anatomy of a news story. It shows how the news story is composed of different kinds of information, the metadata attached to a news story, and the different types of news stories displayed on the site.

The concept model establishes a vocabulary for talking about the structure of these stories, and how they might be formatted in different ways on different parts of the site. The front page will have short teasers. Subject category pages might have longer teasers and a couple of features with longer introductions. The design team gives all these data points distinct names so they can talk about them easily: short summaries, headlines, subheads, long summaries, main body, extended body, and many others.

For all the effort put into this terminology, it may never be exposed to the end user. Its purpose is simply to facilitate the design process, to come to a common understanding of how the underlying concepts relate to each other. It is through the final design that the people using the site are intended to understand these concepts. Ironically, the design needs to be more effective than the concept model in communicating them.

And yet, many designs couldn't get off the ground without some kind of conceptual model. This won't change anytime soon, and with web-based systems becoming more complex and richer in their interactions with users, concept models will be more critical than ever to the planning process. Web sites whose navigation systems rely more on searching than browsing, or that depend on organic growth with content contributed from users, or that simplify information delivery through syndication, will require more conceptual designing up front. The concept model may become a more central tool in the process of designing web sites.

Exercises

  1. Pick one of the following "systems" and create a concept model describing it, but don't use the word itself in the model. The challenge here is separating the system from the processes associated with the system. For the library, for example, your model shouldn't be a step-by-step description of how to check out a book. Instead, it needs to provide an overview of all the different things that make up the library and describe the relationships between them. Even if you can't use the name of the system, you can use nouns and verbs that evoke the system.

    Bicycle

    Checkers

    Text messaging

    Library

    Stand mixer

    Guitar

    Movie theater

    ATM

  2. Show someone else your concept model and see if they can guess what system it describes. Once you have that out of the way, practice walking through the model and soliciting feedback.
  3. Create a model like the one for comics for your favorite medium (television cop dramas or sitcoms, a specific genre of music, period literature, children's books, and so on). Don't be afraid of getting too specific. One of the most memorable models I've seen mapped different varieties of dance music, showing not only the relationships between them but the beats per minute along a scale. Your model should describe the experience of the medium from as many angles as possible, but you may decide to limit the depth. (Do you really need to talk about camera operators or technical consulting in the production of a television show?)
  4. Use the model to map out a web site (or other product) that supports, enhances, or commercializes the experience of the medium you selected. Identify two or three approaches for designing and structuring the site, inspired by the concept model. Your approach need not be elaborate. Instead state in a few sentences (or with a picture) how you intend to architect the site: What are the main templates and navigational mechanisms? What is the range of content you'll support? What kinds of things will users be able to do? Reference the concept model (perhaps through color coding?) to provide a rationale for your approach.
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