conceptual model

Conceptual Models – What Are They and How Can You Use them?

A conceptual model is a representation of a system that uses concepts and ideas to form said representation.Conceptual modeling is used across many fields, ranging from the sciences to socioeconomics to software development.

When using a conceptual model to represent abstract ideas, it’s important to distinguish between a model of a concept versus a model that is conceptual. That is to say, a model is intrinsically a thing unto itself, but that model also contains a concept of what that model represents — what a model is, as opposed to what a model represents.

Without diving too deep into the philosophical, recognizing these differences between the model itself and what it represents is critical to understanding the proper use of conceptual models in the first place. It should come as no surprise, then, that conceptual models are often used as an abstract representation of real world objects.

Throughout this article we’ll explore what conceptual models are, how they are most commonly implemented, as well as a few advantages and disadvantages of using conceptual models in the realm of software development, so let’s get to it!

What is a Conceptual Model?

As touched on above, conceptual modeling is used as a way to describe physical or social aspects of the world in an abstract way. For example, in the realm of software development, a conceptual model may be used to represent the relationships of entities within a database. Whether written down via text or diagrammed visually, such a conceptual model can easily represent abstract concepts of the relationships between objects in the system, such as Users and their relationship to Accounts.

In fact, conceptual models within a typical software development life cycle are often referred to as domain models. A domain model is a type of conceptual model that incorporates representations of both behavior and data at the same time. As illustrated above, this often represents database entities, using simple diagramming techniques to illustrate 1-to-1, 1-to-many, and many-to-many relationships within the system.

Overall, a conceptual model should fulfill four fundamental objectives:

  • Enhance understanding of the representative system.
  • Promote efficient conveyance of system details between team members.
  • Provide a point of reference for system designers to gather system specifications.
  • Document the system for future reference.

Applying these objectives to our example data model above, we can ascertain that a conceptual data model should capture the key business entities (a person, place, concept, event, or thing about which the organization wants to collect data), as well as the relationships between these entities.

Conceptual Model Implementation and Best Practices

Due to the broad spectrum of concepts and inherent abstractness that it can represent, conceptual modeling is used in a wide range of projects, across dozens of fields. Within the realm of software development, as we illustrated above, conceptual modeling is most commonly used as a form of data modeling; representing abstract business entities and the relationships therein.

The rise of rapid application development represents another very common implementation of conceptual modeling, which uses abstract models to represent development processes that are rapidly changing and being iterated upon. Furthermore, within each phase of rapid application development, conceptual models are typically used to communicate sub-concepts as well.

Even fundamental modeling practices are, by their very nature, forms of conceptual models. One such example is the Unified Modeling Language, which was created in the mid-90s, and is a general purpose modeling language that attempts to provide a standard method to visualize system design.

Throughout all the various implementations of conceptual models, a few best practices have emerged. A conceptual model should:

  • … be available to all team members, to facilitate collaboration and iteration.
  • … be easily changeable, as a continuous reflection of up-to-date information.
  • … contain both visual and written forms of diagramming, to better explain the abstract concepts it may represent.
  • … establish relevant terms and concepts that will be used throughout the project.
  • … define said terms and concepts.
  • … provide a basic structure for entities of the project.

In spite of the name, conceptual models are not merely conceptual, they are frequently put to use in real-world scenarios. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) used conceptual modeling to develop Emergency Response Management systems, as have other vital institutions including the U.S. Missile Defense Agency and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Advantages of Conceptual Modeling

Since conceptual models are merely representations of abstract concepts and their respective relationships, the potential advantages of implementing a conceptual model are many, but largely depend on your own ability to devise a strong model in the first place. Generally speaking, the primary advantages of a conceptual model include:

  • Establishes Entities: By establishing and defining all the various entities and concepts that are likely to come up throughout the course of a software development life cycle, a conceptual model can help ensure that there are fewer surprises down the road, where entities or relationships might otherwise have been neglected or forgotten.
  • Defines Project Scope: A solid conceptual model can be used as a way to define project scope, which assists with time management and scheduling.
  • Base Model for Other Models: For most projects, additional, less abstract models will need to be generated beyond the rough concepts defined in the conceptual model. Conceptual models serve as a great jumping-off point from which more concrete models can be created, such as logical data models and the like.
  • High-Level Understanding: Conceptual models serve as a great tool by providing a high-level understanding of a system throughout the software development life cycle. This can be particularly beneficial for managers and executives, who may not be dealing directly with coding or implementation, but require a solid understanding of the system and the relationships therein.

Disadvantages of Conceptual Modeling

Since a conceptual model is so abstract, and thus, is only as useful as you make it, there can be a few disadvantages or caveats to watch out for when implementing your own conceptual model:

  • Creation Requires Deep Understanding: While conceptual models can (and should) be adaptive, proper creation and maintenance of a conceptual model requires a fundamental and robust understanding of the project, along with all associated entities and relationships.
  • Potential Time Sink: Improper modeling of entities or relationships within a conceptual model may lead to massive time waste and potential sunk costs, where development and planning have largely gone astray of what was actually necessary in the first place.
  • Possible System Clashes: Since conceptual modeling is used to represent such abstract entities and their relationships, it’s possible to create clashes between various components. In this case, a clash simply indicates that one component may conflict with another component, somewhere down the line. This may be seen when design or coding clash with deployment, as the initial assumptions of scaling during design and coding were proven wrong when actual deployment occurred.
  • Implementation Challenge Scales With Size: While conceptual models are not inherently ill-suited for large applications, it can be challenging to develop and maintain a proper conceptual model for particularly complex projects, as the number of potential issues, or clashes, will grow exponentially as the system size increases.