6 Tips to Making Good Models

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mind map diagram of design blog topics
A Mind Map Model of Blog Post Topics

I recently took a remote modeling workshop with The Understanding Group (TUG). The workshop was enlightening and changed my approach to creating and critiquing models. Here are 6 key takeaways that I got from the workshop.

Model with an Intent

Modeling things when you don’t know what you are trying to model is hard. Before you start modeling, it helps to think about what is the overarching goal that you are trying to accomplish and how can a model help you move a step closer to achieving that goal. What are the areas that are fuzzy and require discovery? For example, if my goal was to design a pizza-ordering app, the first model that I might create would be something that can help me understand the ordering process so that I can create screen designs with the correct flow. I might state my intent for this model to be “to help me figure out all the steps of what a customer would do to order a pizza through the application.” An intent is like a north star, driving the model in the direction toward achieving a project objective.

Anything can be a Model

There is no one correct way to model. As long as the model is made with an intent and drives progression toward an overarching goal, it’s a model! Each and every slide of a PowerPoint deck is a model. Each frame design in Figma is a model. Sketches on pen and paper are models. Cardboard buildings and plastic trees on a landscape at 1/100th scale of a city are models. Models can be highly abstract like a venn diagram or realistic like a printed life-sized prototype of a cereal box. It doesn’t matter what medium, method, or form the model takes as long as it meets its intent.

Models are not Precious

Some models are just meant to be messy, darn near ineligible, and deserving of the trash. You didn’t waste your time creating these garbage models if they helped you understand how to create better subsequent versions of the model. Before I took the TUG workshop, I would often find myself getting stuck on the granular points of a model in an attempt to achieve perfection. For example, worrying whether a symbol on the flow diagram is the correct one to use (do I use a triangle or diamond to represent a decision?). I learned not to expect my first model to be the last or have a fear of not getting a model right the first time. Models are meant to be played with. Expect to iterate on models the way you iterate on user interface screen designs.

Make Multiple Models

Sometimes more than one model may needed to achieve the overarching goal of understanding a topic. Trying to fit all aspects of a thing into one model can cause clutter, making the model more difficult to comprehend. It is like two people having a conversation about different topics. Each person will speak coherently about his or her own topic, but when the sentences of the two topics are strung together, thoughts gets muddled and the conversation fails. The goal of a model is to help clarify the complex. Trying to communicate too many intents and aspects in a model can cause confusion.

Model for the Audience

A good model does not have to make sense to everyone. Have you ever seen a beautiful model full of industry-related jargon? Well, chances are, it wasn’t made for you, and rightfully so. When modeling for a specific audience, it is important to know how much knowledge and context the target audience has about the subject. Once I created a technical document that contained comprehensive and detailed information about a product enhancement. When I solicited feedback on the document from a senior front-end developer, he commented that it was unnecessary to include all the call-outs and paragraph descriptions about content that already exists in our product. If I had focused solely on drawing cal- out arrows and creating tables for just the new objects, actions, and attributes of the product enhancement, it would have saved the developer a considerable amount of time scanning the document. I should have considered how my audience–software developers–would use my document and factored out information that they already had a lot of context about.

Make Imperfect Models

The way a model looks affects how much people want to play with it. If a model is too perfectly structured, the audience critiquing the model may be less inclined to point out inaccuracies because they may not want to discredit the hard work and time put into creating the model. Unpolished models invite collaboration, and collaboration leads to gaps in understanding to being bridged.


I highly recommend taking the The Understanding Group’s Modeling for Clarity Remote Workshop. The workshop teaches how to make good models that can help understand, explain, and persuade a topic. It has made modeling fun and more effective for me as I untangle system complexities during my daily work.


The Understanding Group: Modeling for Clarity Remote Workshop. https://understandinggroup.com/workshops


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