Conceptual Models in a Nutshell

This article explains what conceptual models are and describes the value of developing a conceptual model of a software application before designing its user interface.

Conceptual Model: a Model for Users’ Mental Model

A conceptual model of an application is the model of the application that the designers want users to understand.  By using the application, talking with other users, and reading the documentation, users build a model in their minds of how to use the application. Hopefully, the model that users build in their minds is close to the one the designers intended. This hope has a better chance of being realized if the designers have explicitly designed a clear conceptual model as a key part of their development process.

A conceptual model describes abstractly — in terms of tasks, not keystrokes, mouse-actions, or screen graphics — what users can do with the system and what concepts they need to be aware of. The idea is that by carefully crafting a conceptual model, then designing a user interface from that, the resulting application will be cleaner, simpler, and easier to understand. The goal is to keep the conceptual model: 1) as simple as possible, with as few concepts as are needed to provide the required functionality, and 2) as focused on the task-domain as possible, with few or no concepts for users to master that are not found in the application’s target task domain.

Object/Operation Analysis

An important component of a conceptual model is an Object/Operation analysis: an enumeration of the user-visible object-types in the application, the attributes of each object-type, and the operations that users can perform on each object-type. Purely presentational and purely implementation object-types have no place in an application’s conceptual model because users will not have to be aware of them.

Objects in the conceptual model of an application can usually be organized in a type-hierarchy, with sub-types inheriting operations from their parent types. Depending on the application, objects may also be organized into a containment hierarchy, i.e., in which some objects contain other objects. Laying out these two hierarchies in a conceptual model greatly facilitate the design and development of a coherent, clear user interface.

This analysis can help guide implementation, because it indicates the most natural hierarchy of implementation objects and the methods each must have. It also simplifies the application’s command structure by allowing designers to see what operations are common to multiple objects and therefore can be designed as generic operations. This, in turn, makes the command structure easier for users to master: they must only learn a few generic commands that apply to many object-types, rather than a larger number of more narrowly applicable object-specific commands.

For example, in a well-thought-out application that allows users to create and manipulate both Thingamajigs and Doohickeys, when users know how to create a Thingamajig and want to create a Dohickey, they already know how because creation works the same way for both. Ditto copying, moving, deleting, editing, printing, etc.

Example: Object/Operation Analysis for a Simple Office Calendar App

For example, let’s examine an objects/operations analysis for a simple office calendar application. The objects, attributes, operations, and relationships might be as follows:

Objects: It would include objects like calendar, event, to-do item, and person (see Table 1).  It would exclude non-task-related objects like buffer, dialog box, database, and text-string.

Attributes: A calendar would have an owner and a default focus (day, week, month). An event would have a name, description, date, time, duration, and a location. A to-do item would have a name, description, deadline, and priority. A person would have a name, a job-description, an office location, and phone number. However, Events should not have byte-size as an exposed attribute, because that is implementation-focused, not task-focused.

Operations: Calendars would have operations like examine, print, create, change view, add event, delete eventEvents would have operations like examine, print, and editTo-do items would have more-or-less the same operations as events. Implementation-related operations like loading databases, editing table rows, flushing buffers, and switching modes would not be part of the conceptual model.


Objects Attributes Operations


owner, current focus

examine, print, create, add event, delete event


name, description, date, time, duration, location, repeat, type (e.g., meeting)

examine, print, edit (attributes)

To-Do item

name, description, deadline, priority, status

view, print, edit (attributes)


name, job-description, office, phone

send email, view details

Table 1. Object/operation analysis for a simple office calendar application.

Keep it Simple

Sometimes it is tempting to add concepts to provide more functionality. But, it is important to realize that each additional concept comes at a high cost, for two reasons: 1) it adds a concept that users who know the task domain will not recognize and therefore must learn, and 2) it increases the complexity of the application exponentially, because each added concept interacts with many of the other concepts in the application.  Therefore, extra concepts should be resisted if possible. The operative design mantra with conceptual models is: “Less is more.”

A Conceptual Model Provides a Foundation for the App and the Project

The user interface design translates the abstract concepts of the conceptual model into concrete presentations and user-actions. For best results, the user interface is designed after the conceptual model has been designed.  Scenarios can then be rewritten at the level of the user interface design. Designing the UI from the conceptual model may expose problems in the conceptual model, in which case the conceptual model may be improved.

A conceptual model provides a foundation not only for the UI design, but also for the application’s implementation and documentation. It therefore plays a central role in the design and development of the overall product.

Summary: Six Benefits of Conceptual Models

Starting a design by devising a conceptual model has several benefits:

  1. By laying out the objects and operations of the task-domain, it allows designers to notice operations that are shared by many objects. Common operations across objects make the UI simpler for users to learn and remember.
  2. Even ignoring the simplification that can result from noticing shared operations, devising a user-model forces designers to consider the relative importance of concepts, the relevance of concepts to the task domain (as opposed to the computer domain), the type hierarchy of objects, and the containment hierarchy of objects. Having thought about these things greatly facilitates designing a user-interface.
  3. A conceptual model provides a starting point for the development of a product vocabulary, i.e., a dictionary of terms that will be used to identify each of the objects and operations embodied in the software. This helps ensure that terms are used consistently thoughout the app and its documentation.
  4. Once designers have a conceptual model for an app, they can write scenarios depicting people using the app to perform tasks, using only concepts from the conceptual model and terms from the vocabulary. For example, a conceptual-level scenario for the calendar application might be: “John checks his appointments for the week. He schedules a team meeting, inviting team members, and adds a dental appointment.” Such scenarios (which can be separated into use-cases), help validate the design in functional reviews. They can also be included in product documentation and training. Conceptual scenarios describe tasks and goals without revealing the UI-level user interactions required to achieve those goals, so they can be used as task descriptions in usability tests.
  5. A conceptual model provides a first cut at the app’s object-model (at least for the objects that users will be aware of), so developers can use it to begin implementing the app.
  6. An actively-maintained conceptual model supports a better development process. It can insure that all user-visible aspects of an application (functionality, terminology, UI, documentation, support, …) are consistent. By making the conceptual model the joint responsibility of all team members, the application can be made coherent. Both of these also reduce development resources by reducing rework.

Further Reading

•   Johnson, J. & Henderson, D.A., “Conceptual Models: Begin by Designing What to Design”, Interactions, Jan-Feb 2002.

•   Johnson, J. & Henderson, D.A., Conceptual Models: Core to Good Design, Morgan & Claypool, 2011.