What is Physical Design?

The difference between conceptual design and physical design can be somewhat unclear.


Conceptual design usually involves prototyping which is a physical embodiment of the ideas. What is being tested in conceptual design though is the idea or concept, not the specific, concrete elements of the system.


Physical design involves more specific detail after the broader conceptual issues have been sorted out.


  • There is a lot of overlap. Think of the trade-off between horizontal vs. Vertical prototyping.

  • Conceptual design can be constrained by physical design when it occurs too early. There should be interactivity between them.

  • Functionality Vs design detail requirements: compromise

  • The balancing of environmental, data, usability, and functional requirements.

  • Often results in conflicts e.g. mobile phone: multiple functions/physical constraints

  • talking, listening, texting etc.

  • tiny keypad, tiny screen etc.

Schneiderman’s (1998) guidelines for interface design.

  • Strive for consistency

  • Enable frequent users to use shortcuts.

  • Give informative feedback.

  • Give dialogue to yield closure.

  • Error prevention and simple error handling

  • Permit easy reversal of actions.

  • Make sure the user feels in control.

  • Reduce Short Term Memory load.

Nielsen (2001) Design Heuristics

  • Visibility of system status - keeping users informed about what’s going on.

  • Match between system and real world – speak the user’s language

  • User control and freedom – ensure user feels in control of the system.

  • Consistency and standards – ensure that words, situations and actions mean the same thing.

  • Help users recognize diagnose and recover from errors – using plain and simple terminology.

  • Error prevention. – Avoid errors in the first place.

  • Employ recognition rather than recall – remember users cognitive constraints. Make things visible.

  • Flexibility and efficiency – provide support for novices. Allow experts to bypass certain things

  • Aesthetic and minimalist design – avoid clutter and irrelevant information.

  • Help and documentation – provide the user with clear and usable information resources.

Interface elements - widgets

  • Menus, icons, dialogue boxes, toolbars, etc.

  • Widgets contribute to the look-and-feel of the system. Also the identity of the system.

  • Consistency is important for incorporating widgets

  • Style-guides.

What you need to Accomplish

Physical design considers the limitations which must be placed on top of our concepts.

We may envisage a microscopic mobile phone but is it usable due to human physical restraints.


The size of the keys on a keyboard should be of a certain size to allow us to easily type.


Because a new type of car engine has to fit inside the new car body  we consider these 'physical' and environmental issues when designing also.

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