Here we go with the first in our series about design deliverables. This week it’s concept models (or concept maps, take your pick) getting the love.

What they are

Concept maps are a quick and easy way to explore and visually document a domain of knowledge. It’s literally a map or a model of concepts and their relationships in a particular area. I first heard about them from fellow practitioner Scott Confer back in the late 90’s. He studied conceptual graphing at the University of Idaho.

Here’s a really good overview on the theory and practice of concept models from the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. I saw Alberto present a few years ago. Good times!

It seems like user experience folks probably know them from Dan Brown’s Communicating design. In Brown’s formulation of them, the user is often at the center of the map.

What they’re good for

They’re great for teams who need to share an understanding of a problem space. People on a team may use different words to describe the same thing or have a subjective viewpoint on an issue like the men in a dark room with an elephant. Concept maps bring light to the situation.

How we use them

We use them to get up to speed on projects really fast. It’s a great exercise to bridge our lack of understanding and our client’s depth of knowledge without us losing our edge.

Why we use them

We get to a good space as designers with a concept map: enough understanding to be dangerous and able to design interaction, yet far enough removed to still come to the experience with a beginner’s mind, like the people using the stuff we design.

Who can do it

Anyone, from developers to designers to business people. All it takes is something to draw with and something to draw on.

How to do it

  1. Start with a question or domain you want to explore.
  2. Jot down two nouns and circle each one.
  3. Draw a line to connect the two circles, then write down a verb or phrase that describes the connection.
  4. Add more nouns and circles, verbs and connections.

Other takes on the concept map

Here’s some other concept map examples or articles we think are great:

If you are using concept maps, or think they’re lame to use, drop a comment and let us know!

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