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Chapter 4. The Conceptual Model: Selecti... > First Things First: The Importance o...

First Things First: The Importance of a Conceptual Model

As the least conscious layer of the user experience, the conceptual model has the paradoxical quality of also having the most impact on usability. If an appropriate conceptual model is faithfully represented throughout the interface, after users recognize and internalize the model, they will have a fundamental understanding of what the application does and how to operate it. Without this understanding and consistent implementation, however, the user is likely to suffer through a host of usability problems, as the failure of the model reveals itself in a variety of interface components and operations.

Another critical quality of the conceptual model is its dubious distinction as the most technically rigid aspect of the interface. Unfortunately, once a product has adopted a conceptual model, that model so permeates the product that keeping it out of the technical architecture and functioning is almost impossible. As a result, redesigning the product with a different conceptual model often requires a corresponding re-architecture of the product’s technical framework. Unfortunately, the engineering effort required to accomplish this is so large that such a change often amounts to a complete rewrite of the product. For this reason, the conceptual model should be considered a permanent, fixed quality of the interface. Although other aspects of the design will evolve and adapt over time, the conceptual model will remain constant. Put another way, with the right conceptual model in place, problems in any subsequent layers—whether structural, behavioral, or presentational—can be corrected later. With an inappropriate or inconsistent conceptual model, however, the interface will be fundamentally unstable with little hope for any easy repairs.


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