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Using Conceptual Models in Interaction Design. Posted on 04/16/2002.

On a post to a mailing list, Peter asked about using conceptual models in design. It's prompted me to talk about how I did it with the creative team at Epinions.

When we were redesigning the site, we had some time to step back and develop conceptual models for the product. These were key in creating a coherent design with integrity. Every design decision that we made was "filtered" through these models, which ensured that the site felt like a single piece, not just a cobbled together set of features. There's more I can say about it, and I have, in Darcy DiNucci's "Web Site Redesigns", which features an in-depth case study of the Epinions redesign. For the sake of this post, I'm just showing the models, and two emails that I wrote to the design team of the implications I felt the models had for design.

I've placed these models behind the "more" link, as there's quite a bit of stuff here.

Design Model

Behavior Model

Email 1:
Subject: Implications of the Design Model

I hope you've had a chance to look at the models.

There are a number of design implications borne of these models, issues we need to address.

This first email addresses the design model. A second will discuss the behavior and interaction model.

I'm sure there are many more implications than what I have here. This should be a good platform for discussion.

- The fact that opinions exist only as a relationship between a product and a member.
Probably not a whole lot, at least, not in the way stuff is presented to the user.
However, it's important for us to note that if a member leaves, all their opinions leave with them. If a product is removed from the site, all the opinions attached that product are gone. How do we present 'deleted opinions'?

- That by being an overlap between products and members, opinions are a key transition point from one part of the site to another
- The opinion page provides a peek into what's happening 'behind the scenes' at Epinions, in large part with respect to our community and the notion of 'user-generated content.'
- Show the author
- Show opinion rating--a low barrier, fairly straightforward method of getting involved
- I would argue, though, that we don't do things like show "web of trust." That's cognitive overload at this point.

- We've recognized a key division in opinions between "data" and "experience"
- The "data" aspects are of interest to the 'research' folks
- The "experience" aspects are of interest to the 'community' folks
- The "experience" aspects are often explicitly *not* of interest to the 'research' folks - it tends to get in the way of getting the sought after information
- The "data" aspects ought to be aggregated, averaged, and used in display or navigation as a form of 'conventional wisdom' -- and made useful before you ever get to an opinion page
- The "experience" aspects (either in a review, or in the details about a person) should be kept out of the view of a 'research' person for as long as possible--it will only lead to clutter and cognitive overload
- That in the same way a product page shows 'opinion lists' with data-oriented qualities, a member profile page could show an 'opinion list' that's more experiential/personal in tone

Email 2:
Subject: Implications of the Behavior Model

This model is far more fruitful in terms of implications it has on design.

I extended the previous binary split to a more particular 5 Stages of Epinionation.

It's important to recognize that these stages are discrete quanta. They are not on a continuum.

I also further abstracted the 'wall' metaphor into simply a collection of parts with no attempt to create a whole. I'm hoping this helps us get past the silliness of its appearance and instead simply discuss the implications it puts across.

As before, this is meant to be a launching pad of discussion.

Upon FIRST EXPOSURE, the user's model of Epinions is that this is a site that gives info. This is particularly true of paratroopers deep-linked into our site--they didn't ask our site for anything (they asked some other site), and this is the information they got.
- The site must be as simple and seemingly transparent as possible.
- If the first exposure is not of useful information, it must be clear that the user can fix that problem *here*.
- This is also where we need to make clear the breadth of our content from a category perspective. (The diversity of types of content--opinions, advice, buying guides, etc.--is not important to expose to here.)

If there was a SUCCESSFUL USE, the user will continue/return. They'll realize they can ask the site for info, and it will respond. They'll also start to see that there is some kind of mechanism that guides the site's presentation (these 'average rating' thingies seem important... this review is written by some real person.... etc.)
- The user understands there's give and take--it's important that the tools for control are clear and obvious.
- The user sees smidgens of how the site works
+ Average product ratings suggest that normal folks rate these products... interesting
+ Opinion helpfulness ratings suggest that people also rate opinions... and that the most helpful opinions are highlighted
- The user is not overwhelmed with all the mechanisms of the site
+ Proprietary models like "the web of trust" are buried -- shown only on profile page, if then
+ You only see review ratings once you're on an opinion -- before that point, you're not aware that review ratings exist, or their utility. Plus, the site should simply use review ratings to show users the best stuff.
+ "Community" is not featured. The kinds of average ratings seen suggest that, yes, other people effect what you see, but the user is not yet interested in individuals--more in the aggregate
- Our typical 'shopper' might never leave this stage, and that should be okay--as long as they keep coming back to the site

Enough successful use will lead to someone being REGISTERED, where the site gets to know who you are, and provides value because of it.
- This is the single biggest hurdle for us
- The model suggests that we want people to be registered such that the site can know who they are, because, as Sarah said, "The more we know about you, the better we can serve you."
- It's important to realize that this registration is NOT spurred by taking part in the community, which is the main impetus for registration now (rating or writing)
- The registration is spurred by a heightened/personalized/customized *shopper* experience, where the site, by knowing you, gives you better stuff
- Registering at this stage suggests that community is still not all that important... It suggests that we need to think about our users at a more granular level than simply "logged out" and "logged in." There might be many "logged in" users who are not interested in the site's mechanics and would consider them cognitive overload. At the least, we need to recognize two groups of "logged in" - active community participants, and active researchers. - All this makes sense... how many 'members' of amazon do you think have written a review? Amazon has a clear perceived benefit to registering--you get stuff shipped to you.
- Our trick is--what clear perceived benefit can we offer to support the researcher community... That will be attractive enough to overcome the hurdle of registration?
+ I think we can all agree that "personalization" is not enough--the results of such activity often take too long to become relevant, and are often too vague to translate to a user... Personalization needs to come about from other actions that the user has taken (the way that Amazon personalizes based on book purchases, not requiring you to actively 'personalize' the site through ratings or whatnot)
+ Product notebook - this was the main reason I pushed for its development... It provides an incentive to register that's not about rating and writing, but fits into the user's task at hand
+ A wallet - If you only need to type in your CC# once (with us) to buy items all across the Web, that could be very high value. Additionally, we'll be able to track purchases, and use it to supply good recommendations
+ Customization - ways to tailor your research experience/use of Epinions in explicit manners... Customize the home page to show only those categories you're interested in...
+ Get updates - this has proven to be a significant impetus to registration, and is very useful to a researcher community
+ Newsletters
+ Promotions

After registering (or because of it) the user engages in a TRIAL of the more advanced features of the site--rating, writing, adding folks to the web of trust. By nature, this will be a temporary period, where the person decides to either go back and simply be REGISTERED, or move on to be... (continued after implications)
- The question here is do we give them The Full System yet, or still hold some stuff back? What can we do in a trial experience that will lead them to become committed?
+ Do we offer greater incentives to the TRIAL crowd? Get $5 for writing your first opinion? Double the eroyalties per member page view for the first opinion?
+ This is where we start explaining Web of Trust and other community features
+ The user gets a real sense of how the gears turn to create the system they've been using

COMMITTED. These are the Epinions loyalists. Active community members who rate, write, read, and have the most significant and lasting impressions on how the site works.
- So this is the full-bore experience. Though it's probably worth discussion (when we more aggressively model this group) if there should be 'levels' to the commited experience. We currently have a kind of active/advisor split (though both groups see exactly the same thing).

5 comments so far. Add a comment.

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This is terrific! Thanks for putting all this info up, Peter, they're great models for the various elements of the site. Glimpses into process are fascinating all by themselves, but all this context and annotation makes it even better.
Posted by Anil @ 04/16/2002 05:11 PM PST [link to this comment]

Great article! I have been a user of epinions pre and post the design change and the efforts really showed. Now it makes much more sense. I found the seperation between the data and experience amazingly well done since it was a real problem which would have scared a lot many new users away.
Posted by Atul @ 04/16/2002 11:06 PM PST [link to this comment]

Thanks for putting this up Peter. It is exactly what I was looking for: an example of a mental model that isn't just about *categories*. The emails really help putting it into perspective.
Posted by PeterV @ 04/17/2002 11:17 AM PST [link to this comment]

On first pass this is great. You could have retired on this one and been a great success. Thank you for sharing.
Posted by vanderwal @ 04/17/2002 01:40 PM PST [link to this comment]

Stuff like this make me feel all gooey inside...
Posted by Gene @ 04/17/2002 04:18 PM PST [link to this comment]

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