Undoubtedly, you’ve heard of the conceptual design process before in the development of various things. It’s used in architectural design, engineering, electronics design, general product design, and in software design. However, while it’s usually a direct visual depiction of the physical layout in most of these disciplines, it’s a very different process on its lowest levels with software and web services.
In these cases, the conceptual design process spans a number of visual prototype methodologies, mediums and applies to a number of discrete aspects of a design throughout development. Many of the prototyping processes we and others often talk about for UX and usability are forms of and part of this greater conceptual design idea.
In fact, these are the main forms of it in the digital world. In fact, for this, pretty much all departments working on it will use an assorted set of approaches for this.
Programmers often use flow charting to visualize the flow of logic and procedures before they actually write it in code. When multiple small development teams are working together on different parts, in parallel, this can be a crucial set of documents for teams to understand the workings of components other teams have developed, as well.
Programmers are not the only ones who use this flow charting methodology though, as those working out the summary purpose and behavior of the software, as perceived by the user, is often prototyped in a similar manner.
This continues to be used even during the UI design phase, to outline procedural order and navigational models through menus and steps that the UI will present.
Along with flow charts like these, mockups of various forms for UI and the like are worked out in software often designed specifically for that. Initial conceptual designs may be more crude for this, including paper prototypes, rough sketches of physical layouts and simple color-coded rectangles and the like in simple graphics programs and the like.
Once a basic layout has been agreed upon, more advanced mockups with that specially-tasked software (something like Balsamiq for instance) are refined, alongside the flowcharts of navigational flow and categorization of general tasks being accommodated by the software.
Most of the material from these phases loses relevance once the beta phase is entered. A beta phase is a state in which the primary project, when built or deployed, is very close to being considered complete.
During this phase, further changes usually consist of minor tweaks to the UI layer just to optimize it based on test subject feedback, and any glitches are addressed in the code. Old UI mockups and logic flow diagrams are usually stored long-term, but put away by this point.
Only coders continue to use conceptual charting until the project is complete, and refrain from filing their flow charts of code logic away. This is because as maintenance is needed to address bugs not seen in code, or future new releases of the design are intended, a simple representation of how all of the code works is useful for charting out the new functionality in with it, and for new development personnel on board for the new version can come to terms with it quickly.
Old documents for the UI and flow logic rarely see the light of day again when new versions come out. Only the new or changed aspects are addressed there, and generate new conceptual design process documents.