What happens when a conceptual model breaks.

I start every interaction design project with a conceptual model. Maintaining the integrity of that model is crucial to staying in control of the user experience.

Yesterday, Sprint handed me a great example of what happens when a conceptual model is broken.


See what happened there? I screen grabbed this because it’s a little funny, but I’d like to decode what’s going on here by looking at it through the lens of a conceptual model.

The layout follows convention for a chat window with new comments added at the bottom and the history scrolling up. Following convention allows me to focus on the task and not the interface. So far, so good.

Now the interface asks me to change the conceptual model associated with the chat convention, because chat requires two people, and I’m the only human here.

I’m waiting, and if I don’t get feedback of some sort, I’m out.  So Sprint tells me I am number 8 in line. Then in about 20 seconds, tells me I’m seventh. The system is asking me to build a new conceptual model into my experience. There are a number of people ahead of me and it will be my turn when all of those people have been helped. I’m standing in line. Got it.


As long as there is a steady countdown to a conversation with a person, then it doesn’t matter if I’m imagining one representative taking care of a single line of people, or a feeder line leading to many representatives, or multiple lines each leading to an assigned representative. My model of standing in line reliably predicts what is happening on screen. Until…


Huh. Ok. Repeating a number doesn’t fit the model. I need to adjust my model some. Did it give me an update because someone is taking a long time? Is it a bug? This is the first crack in the model.


Now the intended model has been shattered. Ask four people why the line just got longer and you’ll get four different answers.

  1. Someone was given preferential treatment over me. (perceives injustice)
  2. I broke it because I was reading Facebook in another window. (blames self)
  3. One of the reps went to lunch and the algorithm for determining my place in line was adjusted. (technical perspective)
  4. Sprint doesn’t know how to count. (perceives incompetence)

I’ve seen this in usability tests many times. When users adjust their model for anomalies, they turn toward subjective explanations and their behavior becomes difficult to predict and design for.

I know that interfaces don’t always behave as intended, so I stayed on the line and worked with a very nice person who solved my problem. But users who already have a problem are likely to take an adversarial attitude with a company, and when you lose control of the experience the results can be costly.


2 thoughts on “What happens when a conceptual model breaks.

  1. Another explanation: this never was a “countdown” but rather an estimate of your wait, expressed as a position in a queue. At some point, the estimate changed, and your “position” was changed.

    Still, it comes across as unfair or incompetent or both.

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