UX Master Classes

Conceptual Models: A Guide To Intuitive Design

Webinar with Jeff Johnson, Assistant Professor, Computer Science Department, University of San Francisco
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What are conceptual models and why should you, as a designer, care about them? The short answer is, conceptual models are an important design tool to help users select or adopt appropriate mental models.

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Mental models are how your users subconsciously navigate the world, including the digital world: apps, websites, and electronic devices. If your product has an analog in the physical world, users will often apply the same mental model, so your product's conceptual model should reflect that. For example, imagine you are designing an ebook reader. When your users interact with an ebook for the first time, they will refer to their mental model for physical books. They’ll expect to be able to find chapters, turn pages, set bookmarks, highlight phrases, etc. The better you design the ebook experience to match users’ mental models for physical books, the more intuitive and successful your ebook will be.

Even if your product has no analog in the physical world, or has features that have no physical analog, it is important for designers to create conceptual models and design the product based on that, so users can develop a coherent, task-focused mental model of the product. For example, ebook readers often provide functions not found in physical books, such as search, links to other content, or security measures. An ebook should provide that functionality based on a simple, coherent conceptual model, excluding concepts unrelated to users' goals, to help users incorporate the new concepts into their mental model.

Unfortunately, software designers often skip conceptual design. The result is incoherent, arbitrary, overly-complex products that expose off-task concepts to users and conflict with users' mental models, impeding learning, facilitating errors, frustrating users, and ultimately decreasing product uptake.

Understanding conceptual models is the first step towards helping your users navigate and learn to use your product more easily. By building on users’ existing knowledge and frameworks and helping users integrate new concepts, you’ll reduce cognitive friction. Plus, if you understand how users conceive and accomplish tasks, you’ll be able to design intuitive and successful user journeys.

Harness the power of conceptual models in this Master Class with Jeff Johnson.

You’ll learn:

  • The benefits of designing a task-focused, coherent conceptual model of an application before designing the application’s user interface.
  • The components of a conceptual model (e.g., object/operations analysis), and how to create them.
  • Several different ways conceptual models can be represented.

With a more robust understanding of conceptual models you’ll be able to create more intuitive experiences for your user and take your products and solutions to the next level. In addition, the ability to sketch conceptual models quickly and easily will save you large amounts of time in UI design.

Even if you cannot attend the webinar live, register to get access to a recording that you can watch anytime afterwards!


Jeff Johnson
Jeff Johnson, Assistant Professor, Computer Science Department, University of San Francisco

Jeff Johnson is an Assistant Professor in the Computer Science Department of the University of San Francisco. After earning B.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Yale and Stanford, he worked at Cromemco, Xerox, US West, Hewlett-Packard Labs, and Sun Microsystems. In 1990, he co-chaired the first Participatory Design conference, PDC'90. He serves on the SIGCHI U.S. Public Policy Committee. He has also taught at Stanford University and Mills College, and in 2006 and 2013 he taught HCI as an Erskine Fellow at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He is a member of the ACM SIGCHI Academy, a SIGCHI Lifetime Achievement in Practice Awardee, and an ACM Distinguished Member.

He has authored or co-authored many articles and chapters on Human-Computer Interaction, as well as the books GUI Bloopers, Web Bloopers, GUI Bloopers 2.0, Designing with the Mind in Mind, Conceptual Models (co-authored with Austin Henderson), Designing with the Mind in Mind, 2nd edition, Designing UIs for an Aging Population (co-authored with Kate Finn), and Designing with the Mind in Mind, 3rd edition.

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