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Conceptual Models

Conceptual models, also commonly referred to as mental models, provide an informal explanation of how things work. They are usually presented in diagrams that depict the entities and their relationships to each other for the phenomenon that is being described. They are informal in the sense that they do not depend on formal syntax and semantics. Informality has positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, conceptual models are a free form way of describing phenomena, and are useful for early brainstorming about a problem (i.e., starting to organize one’s thoughts). On the negative side, lacking formal syntax and semantics, conceptual models tend to be relatively vague and ambiguous, and therefore not operational. Conceptual models are often developed as a prelude to more formal modeling approaches.

The phrase "conceptual model" sometimes is also used to refer to models that are more formal than mental models, in that they present concepts and relations among concepts in a consistent way (which may or may not involve using a standard modeling language but is at least self-consistent), and may even contain information for computing using these models, although the models are entire separated from the computing engine.

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