Sunday, 15 April 2012

The pushmepullyou of conceptual design

I've just been reading Jeff Johnson's and Austin Henderson's new book on 'conceptual models'. They say (p.18) that "A conceptual model describes how designers want users to think about the application." At first this worried me: surely the designers should be starting by understanding how users think about their activity and how the application can best support users?

Reading on, it's obvious that putting the user at the centre is important, and they include some compelling examples of this. But the question of how to develop a good conceptual model that is grounded in users' expectations and experiences is not the focus of the text: the focus is on how to go from that to an implementation. This is a very complementary approach to ours on CASSM, where we've been concerned with how to elicit and describe users' conceptual models, and then how to support them through design.

It seems to be impossible to simultaneously put both the user(s) and the technology at the centre of the discourse. In focusing on the users, CASSM is guilty of downplaying the challenges of implementation. Conversely, in focusing on implementation, Johnson and Henderson de-emphasise the challenges of eliciting users' conceptual models. These can seem, like the pushmepullyou from Dr Doolittle, to be pulling in opposite directions. But this text is a welcome reminder that conceptual models still matter in design.

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