Book Notes: “Conceptual Models”

Conceptual Models: Core to Good Design
By Jeff Johnson and Austin Henderson
Morgan & Claypool, 2012

I don’t like defacing my books by writing in them. Instead, I annotate them with sticky notes. One side-effect of this approach is that you can tell which books I’ve gotten the most value from by just looking at how many sticky notes protrude from them. This slender volume on conceptual modeling is bulging with sticky notes.

The authors are Xerox alumni from “the rough and tumble days of inventing the future.” There, they discovered the importance of modeling systems before you start designing their user interfaces. This book argues that designers of digital systems must “begin by designing what to design” — figuring out what the system does and what concepts it will expose to its users before they start drawing wireframes.

Sounds obvious, right? In practice, it isn’t. As with other models, conceptual models are abstractions, and abstractions make stakeholders nervous. I’ve experienced it first-hand: resistance to “tooling around” with boxes-and-arrows diagrams when wireframes and comps are “obviously” the way to make progress on a project. Except, of course, that they aren’t: screen-level design that isn’t underpinned by a coherent conceptual structure is mediocre at best and often disastrously ill-suited to addressing user expectations and goals.

As I said, it’s a slender book: only 96 pages. It’s also written as an easy-to-follow outline that explains the principles of successful conceptual modeling, with no fluff. In 2018, there is no excuse for digital designers to start work by designing at the screen level. (For complex challenges, it’s a form of malpractice.) This book offers the most accessible introduction to a key step in the digital design process — one that unfortunately is still often overlooked.

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