Concept Design Tools

Concept Design Tools

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By Victor Lombardi

Published on September 30, 2008

Designers of digital products and services like ourselves can dramatically improve our work by generating more concepts early in our projects. In this article, I’ll try to make concept design easier to learn by illustrating three simple tools for generating concepts.

A Missing Stage in Our Design Process

Concept design is an early phase of the design process that explores far-ranging design ideas which are plausible but which often set aside immediate technical and situational constraints in order to generate new options. The results can be seen in the concept cars from Pininfarina, the futuristic structures rendered by Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture, and the Christian Lacroix designs on the runways of Paris.

In digital design, Cooper’s Parking Angel and emosive from the Designs Which Create Design workshop are examples of design concepts.

As I was researching this topic, I picked up Bill Buxton’s landmark book, Sketching User Experiences. I thought it was only about sketching, but in the course of illustrating early-stage design work he argues that our world is changing and we haven’t kept up:

  • “We’re in the midst of a significant transition in the very nature of the products that are going to emerge in the future … By virtue of their embedded microprocessors, wireless capabilities, identity tagging, and networking, these products are going to be even more difficult to get right.”
  • “It is change that must recognize, acknowledge, and respect the importance and interdependence of the different design, engineering, management, and business disciplines involved.”
  • ”…in software products, we are seeing the notion of user interface design disappearing as a professional description, too often being replaced by usability engineering.”
  • “My belief is that one of the most significant reasons for the failure of organizations to develop new software products in-house is the absence of anything that a design professional would recognize as an explicit design process. …there is nothing that compares to preproduction in film-making, or the design phase that is a standard step in the development of a new automobile.”

Matthew Milan has argued that digital designers are experienced at stealing from other disciplines in order to create the new kinds of products that Buxton describes. But in Buxton we can see we haven’t stolen enough.

The Concept Generation Process

In the traditional new product development (NPD) process, thinking broadly about a problem and generating several conceptual designs early in the process will lead to a better solution at the end. The literature records solid case studies of concept design in NPD process. Product development is a relatively mature discipline as practiced in fields such as industrial and automotive design, so there is more experience generating concepts than in digital design. It would be difficult to imagine Mercedes-Benz or Airbus developing a new automobile or aircraft without an extensive concept design stage.

At one group at Apple, for example, for each new product they start by creating ten concept mock-ups. These aren’t just brief ideas, sketches, or wireframes, they are pixel-perfect designs. Of these, three finalists are selected and refined over a matter of months. Of these, one is the winner.

You can also see this breadth-first approach in the concept design process behind Adaptive Path’s Charmr and—in the field of industrial design—process leading to the Strida folding bicycle.

Why Concept Designs Work

Personally, I used to think concept designs were frivolous exercises in design exhibitionism. Because they often didn’t solve any of the current problems at hand, they struck me as impractical and narcissistic, and this seemed to be the unspoken opinion in the web and software design industry, because I didn’t see anyone making them. I’ve worked in consulting and inside companies of different industries, with international operations and with formally-trained designers, but no one was generating concepts the way industrial designers and architects did.

In 2004 I made a career switch from designing websites to more of an advisory and facilitative role that involved leading and teaching teams product and service development. I found myself in a position where concepts were not only helpful in getting to a working design, they were powerful communication tools for convincing managers to commit the time, staff, and money necessary to run a successful design project.

I found that design concepts are powerful artifacts for both planning and persuasion for several reasons:

  • The primary use of design concepts is to take a broad view of the situation. A breadth-first approach helps us explore the entire space of all possible designs. As an extension of idea generation exercises like brainstorming, it generates new options at the beginning of the project when more ideas can be explored with less expense.
  • Concepts afford a great degree of control over a project because they allow us to frame a problem in a way that can make the solution easier or more interesting. The fashion equivalent of this is couture, of which Honor Fraser, the former English model, says, “I love modeling couture. It’s the only pure expression in fashion—the one part of the fashionable world where there are no commercial compromises at all.”
  • By controlling how a problem is framed, we can address new kinds of issues, including big, strategic issues we wouldn’t ordinarily be assigned.
  • Concepts are sexy; the Italians have known this for a long time. By using rich visualization, language, and attitude we can evoke strong emotions and thoughts from our audience.
  • Concepts reduce risk by ensuring we explore the space of possible designs for the best solution. Imagine reaching the end of the project and the client asks, “Why didn’t you design it this other way?” and you don’t have a good answer.
  • Concepts help teams form a common understanding of what they will collectively design better than written specifications.

Types of Concepts

In the book Product Concept Design: A Review of the Conceptual Design of Products in Industry, three types of concepts are described:

  • Product Development Concepts support the definition of the product specification, which is needed to set detailed goals of the design of the subsystems of the product and for the following phases of the design process. An example is the concept for the second generation One Laptop Per Child XO-2.
  • Emerging Concepts are created in association with technical research or the modification of products for radically different markets. They unravel the opportunities of a new technology or market and growing user needs, and facilitate the company’s learning and decision-making process. An example is IconNicholson’s Social Retailing.
  • Vision Concepts support the company’s strategic decision-making by outlining the future beyond the range of product development and research activities. There is no expectation that this kind of vision concept will be implemented, and therefore the technical and commercial requirements are less restrictive than in other kinds of concepts. An example is frog design’s Aura.

Of these, the tools described below are intended to facilitate the creation of Product Development and Emerging Concepts.

Concept Design Tools

Bill Buxton showed us the how of concept design in the book Sketching User Experiences. My tools strive to be the what of concept design, to help us answer the question: ‘What do we sketch?’ When we convene an interdisciplinary team in front of a whiteboard to address a particular design goal, where do we begin?

Below are three tools: Question the Brief, Re-Focus the Touch Point, and Selective Memory. I keep these tools simple; I imagine they are something you turn to shortly before a meeting to help facilitate concept generation. In addition to these, I will post more online at, but I hope you’ll see they are useful enough and simple enough that you will want to create your own.

Question the Brief

Let’s say we are designing software to backup our computers. Our pre-existing concept might be something like this:

This design might work just fine for our needs, but we may want to see what else we could create. A key to arriving at new ideas is to question our assumptions about this concept. We can start questioning this concept by explicitly writing out the brief, which could be as simple as:

“An application which periodically copies updated files to a remote repository and can later retrieve the files.”

Then we question our assumptions. Is the copying not periodic, but constant? Does it have to be an application, installed locally? Maybe the function lives in the cloud and is accessed through the web instead:

So that gives us one alternate concept. I’ll emphasize at this point how simple this tool can be. When you’re working with a group of people with a pre-conceived notion of what the product will be, it’s not easy to change that direction. A simple tool can quickly generate alternative options. Like a screwdriver, a simple tool doesn’t seem special until you try to do the job without it.

Re-Focus the Touch Point

Another way we can question our assumptions is to outline the basic touch points in the user experience and look at where the focus is. Then we question if the focus should be on some other touch point. In our backup software example, the interaction focuses on the Backup touch point. Should the focus be somewhere else? Can the backup be performed entirely in the background, only notifying us if something goes wrong? If so, we could shift our energy to the Restore touch point. After all, this is when customers are worried they might have lost their work and need a great experience retrieving their information.

After more concept design work in this direction, we might end up here:

Notice in using these tools we didn’t just redesign the interface, we changed how the consumer conceptually interacts with the product. So when we think broadly at the beginning of our design process, it’s thinking broadly at the conceptual level, not just the detailed design level.

Selective Memory

Still another way to question our assumptions is to examine the constraints of our project. In addition to money and time, there are many other constraints such as customers’ conventional behavior and government regulations. In Bo Westerlund’s Design space conceptual tool (PDF) he points out that some constraints are loose and some are rigid. We can plot them along a continuum this way to become fully conscious of them. For each category such as “Industry Standards” we can list specific examples of constraints on our project:

To use this tool, we can look at each constraint and ask, “What if we ignored this constraint? What could we do then?” For example, for years viewing documents on the web meant converting them to HTML or downloading them, or perhaps viewing PDF files using a browser plug-in. If we asked, “What if we ignore the industry convention of existing file formats? How else could we view documents on the web?” we might end up with concepts like Scribd or Issuu that display documents in dynamic ways using Flash:

Of course, looser constraints will be easier to ignore than rigid constraints. But sometimes a great concept that solves a problem in a surprising way will convince people that a constraint should be ignored. It is often up to you as the designer to show others what could be, by generating new concept designs in the early stage of your project.

The Takeaway

The single most important idea I’d like you to take away is to allocate more time and resources early in projects to explore more alternative solutions. Regardless of what process you follow or what tools you employ, a breadth-first approach offers many benefits long-enjoyed by our colleagues in architecture and industrial design.

If you want to learn more, I recommend:

Related Topics: Web Design, Planning, Interaction Design, Basics

Victor Lombardi is a design consultant living in New York City. His personal website is Noise Between Stations.