Gain a Communication Superpower with Concept Models

Imagine that you’re on a product team that has been given the goal to create a more “engaging” product experience. Perhaps there was a PowerPoint deck that illuminated poor retention numbers, and research data that pointed toward a lack of user engagement, hence the directive.

When each person hears the term “engagement” in that presentation, they begin to form a mental model of what that might mean for the product. Each one of their mental models are informed by their own knowledge and experience, and it’s very possible that no two mental models are identical. So, how might that product team form alignment on what “engagement” means for their product? Furthermore, how might they gain alignment with their stakeholders about what that means?

That’s just one scenario, and I’m sure that you can think of other similar situations like it. There are two common factors in scenarios like these. The first is that there’s some objective that requires group alignment to work toward it. And, I’ll add that the objective may have more than one concept to understand. The second is that the concepts that are explicitly or implicitly described are ambiguous and open to interpretation. When alignment is key to working together to move toward a shared objective, how do we get on and stay on the same page?

There are a wide range of approaches to might take, but they always converge on a conversation that usually involves a small group. The conversations can be positive and energetic, or conflicting and tense. In either case, you may hear phrases like:

  • “I’m not sure I follow your meaning.”
  • “I think we’re saying the same thing.”
  • “Do you have an example?”
  • “I thought I was pretty clear when we spoke last time…

The goal of these conversations is to form alignment and a common way forward. It’s not surprising that conversations are our primary alignment tool, and I would never suggest otherwise – they are a time tested way for people to share and align mental models.

A tool that helps these conversations are visual aides. They help by disambiguating our words to show what we mean, and there are a range of visual aides that can be used. One example is to collect inspiration from other products to see how they demonstrate the concept. But, that only scratches the surface.

It’s a good habit to form the inclination to dig deeper and unpack the concept more. Here’s a few questions you might ask. Why is the concept valid for the context? What does the concept really mean? Is there a user relationship to the concept, and if so what is their mental model? How does it fit into the big picture? It’s basically all of that design thinking stuff that sets the stage for good design, great products, and happy users & customers.

As you might surmise, simply seeing how other companies accomplish concept “x” won’t cut it. However, there is a tool that can be a visual communication aide and potentially much more, and it’s not the superpower of reading minds. But, it comes close – drawing concept models.

Concept models first started as an education tool documented in Learning How to Learn by Joseph Novak and Bob Gowin. And, Hugh Dubberly, founder of DDO, introduced us to using concept models in various contexts, most notably designing for intuitive user experiences.

I like to think of them like a microscope. Under its lens we can zoom into the fundamental building blocks of a concept. We can examine how each of those building blocks are related. And, we can zoom back out to see how all of the parts combine to form the concept.

Creating a concept model can happen at various stages with various levels of input. On your own, you might draw one to visually synthesize your understanding of a concept. You may use that as a prompt for conversation, and build upon it with others. You may even start drawing it collaboratively on a whiteboard from the beginning. And perhaps you take it step further giving it a graphic designer’s polish to use as a communication tool that elicits stakeholder feedback and/or drives alignment on a concept. Those are a few example use cases. In all of them, concept models create the conditions to extract people’s disparate mental models of a concept, and enable a shared mental model.

Last but not least, they can help set the stage for ideation. They’re a great tool for seeing a comprehensive big picture, and depending on inputs, they can illuminate your understanding of a user’s mental model. If you’d like to see a detailed example of a concept model, and learn a basic process for creating one, I recommend Audrey Crane’s detailed breakdown here.

We also work with product teams to introduce them to a wider range of models, how to use them, and a guided hands on approach to creating ones that are relevant to them. If you’re interested in talking about a workshop like this for your team, email us at: