An Event Apart: Concept Models -A Tool for Planning Websites

by Luke Wroblewski October 12, 2009

Dan Brown's Concept Models: A Tool for Planning Websites presentation at An Event Apart Chicago provided an overview of concept models, their creation, and how they can be employed in the Web design process.

  • Planning a Web site used to involve spatial metaphors. Where is information located and how is that space organized? Content on a typical Web site these days is classified in many more ways: topic, source, time, popularity, etc.
  • As a result, we need to ask deeper questions about how content is organized.
  • Content type (genre) defines content at the basic level in terms of format (video, image) and function (intended use). Content types are the currency of information architecture –how we discuss Web site organization.
  • We can’t know every single piece of content that appears on the site. We need to use generalizations.
  • Site maps are not a good way to represent Web site structures. They can’t model all the links between content that exist. Concept models are a better tool for modeling information architecture today (as it has evolved).
  • Concepts models are nouns connected by verbs. They can help illustrate: requirements (what does it do?), priority (what’s important), and provide clarity (what does this mean?)
  • Where to start building concept models: make a list of concepts. Then begin to organize them.
  • Start with the theme or central story: what captures the design problem or solution; the most familiar aspects of an experience; the least well-described concepts; what has the most weight.
  • Once you have a basic idea, you want to think about how to lay a concept model out.
  • Hub and spoke: single starting concept, rest orbits around it.
  • Diad, Triad, or Quad: a few concepts that make up the central idea. Everything seems to revolve around these few concepts.
  • Value proposition: use a few concepts to define a core idea or sentence. Position everything else around it.
  • Concept models allow you to find candidates for page templates. Look for concepts that are destinations, hubs, or starting points.

Eight tips for using concept models

  1. Determine context. Before you make a concept model –think about how you will use it? Drive requirements or get your head around a topic?
  2. Do research. Even if you are every familiar with a topic, research goes a long way and might help introduce important new questions.
  3. Concepts models are nouns connected by verbs. Start by making a list of nouns. Look in existing documentation, specs, user stories, etc.
  4. Start with less. Only add in what you need as you go.
  5. …or start with more. By moving things around and experimenting with connections you can find new personalities.
  6. Label everything. This allows others to understand what you are thinking. Use active verbs to show relationships beyond “belonging”. These are often more valuable.
  7. Balance familiar and unfamiliar. Putting unfamiliar things in the context of familiar things helps people learn new concepts.
  8. Involve others. Get feedback from more people to expand the breadth and depth of a content model. A more collaborative approach gets people to buy into ideas.

For more...

Check out my notes from three years of An Event Apart presentations.