Editor’s note: This forum presents models relevant to interaction design and service design. It describes the models,
how they might be used, and why they matter. It also describes the models’ origins and contrasts related models.
In its first year, forum articles described models of innovation process, design process (Analysis-Synthesis Bridge),
customer experience cycle, learning in design and product development, the trend from a mechanical to a biological
frame in design (era analysis), design research types (map), and interaction types (taxonomy).
However, none of the articles presented a model of models. We correct that oversight here.
Models of Models
Dubberly Design Office | firstname.lastname@example.org
 Dubberly, H. and S.
Evenson. “The Analysis-Synthesis Bridge
Model.” interactions 15,
no. 2 (2008).
Models are ideas about the world—how it might be
organized and how it might work. Models describe
relationships: parts that make up wholes; structures that bind them; and how parts behave in relation to one another.
For example, the sun rises in the east, moves
across the sky, and sets in the west. Or the earth
orbits the sun.
Models support communication and learning.
Models help bridge the gap between observing and
making, between research communities and design
communities . Models are especially important in
interaction and service design.
drawn” [ 2]. Alan Kay noted, “Models are our voodoo
dolls. We do most of our thinking in models” [ 3].
Models begin with things or events that we
observe. We want to describe or explain what we
see. Pieces fit together; patterns emerge; we posit
causes and effects. Under this frame, evidence
leads to models.
[ 2] Beer, S. Decision and
Control: The Meaning of
Cybernetics. New York:
John Wiley & Sons,
Observation can be a source of new models. Observation can be a source of new models.
Models are ideas about the world—how it might be organized Models are ideas about the world—how it might be organized
and how it might work.
[ 3] Kay, A. interviewed
in “Project 2000,” a
video produced by
the author while at
Apple Computer, Inc.,
A representation of the A representation of the A representation of the Coper- A representation of the Co
per-Ptolemaic model of the “world nican model of the “solar
system”—a geocentric view. system”—a heliocentric view.
Making Sense and Guiding Action
Models help us make sense of things. Stafford Beer
wrote, “Now in trying to account for the behavior
of a complicated system, the scientist has first to
represent it in the formal terms he knows how to
manipulate.... The formal representation of the
system that he builds is called a model. This model
is something different than the diagrams that are
May + June 2009
[ 4] Argyris, C.
and Action: Individual
and Organizational. San
Models are conjectures—hypotheses. They are
not formed by deduction or induction but by abduction—inferring the most likely story to explain the
evidence. Abduction is the creative heart of science,
engineering, and design. Its mechanism remains
unknown—though preparation and persistence
may aid the process.
Models are not the special province of science.
We use them all the time. Models help us recognize
new situations as similar to others we have encountered. Without a model, recognizing the similarities
might be difficult.
Models also help us predict likely futures: what
actions other actors may take, consequences of those
actions, and what actions best respond to threats
or most efficiently help us pursue our goals.Armed
with our models’ predictions, we act accordingly.
Chris Argyris wrote, “Although people do not
[always] behave congruently with their espoused
theories [what they say], they do behave congruently with their theories-in-use [their mental models]”
[ 4]. Under this frame, models lead to action.
Learning As Forming and Reforming Models