The Battle Between Low-Fidelity Versus High-Fidelity Prototypes

Alex Soleimani | August 13, 2021 | 5 Min Read

Fidelity, which determines the level of functionality and detail in product prototypes, is a hot-button topic in the realm of healthcare design. On one side, you have designers who push for high-fidelity prototypes. But as Interaction Designer Alex Soleimani notes, there’s quite a bit of value in developing low-fidelity prototypes as well.

On a recent project, one of the principal stakeholders joked about how my wireframes looked as if they had been drawn with crayons, and how the font reminded them of Comic Sans. I didn’t mind (and I’ve heard that one before) because we had just spent the last 45 minutes talking about the various ways in which users would move through our designs, and how we could anticipate their needs throughout.

The life of an interaction designer is not one filled with aesthetic admiration, with clients sitting back as they gasp at the beauty of it all (it does happen, just not often). This is because our approach to design has to be pragmatic, logical, empirical, among other things—a thorough understanding of the space and users at hand.

There is a time and place for aesthetics. In fact, it is one of the most well-regarded heuristics of usability, but at the beginning of the process, when the rubber hits the road, whiteboards, napkins, markers, squiggly lines, ugly fonts, and yes, even crayons—these are our tools to produce low-fidelity prototypes.

A great UX thinker once said, “The fidelity of the presentation should match the fidelity of the thinking.” I’ve carried this quote my entire career and I plan to continue to do that as it has saved me countless hours. Thank you, Bill Buxton.

The thought here is to resist the temptation to start out your designs with pixel perfection in mind, that is, avoid developing a high-fidelity prototype from the get-go. While some may regard creating a high-fidelity prototype as some sort of higher art, it is actually skipping steps that are critical to the process—steps that are built upon low-fidelity prototypes.

There are layers upon layers of meaning and strategic intention that end up baked into any design—attempting to address them all in a single pass—which is what happens when you design a high-fidelity prototype without any iterations–is a tragedy and a sure way to limit your designs. Developing low-fidelity prototypes mitigates this tragic end.


The Fidelity Informs The Focus

By starting in low fidelity, the focus is on the interactions and behavior of the interface. You ask yourself:

  • What happens when the user selects this option and what are the other actions available to them during this time?
  • Will that selection be a distraction to the user when they are in the midst of the onboarding process?
  • What if we removed this functionality until later on when the user is more familiar with the platform, and they are actually ready to use it?

Looking at an interface without any of the polish makes it easier to focus on the bigger picture. Only when these questions are well understood and established, and ultimately satisfied, should we level up to higher fidelity.

Alternatively, looking at a fully polished design, we might be more inclined to discuss the colors or the usage of space. In fact, there are instances where brilliant visual design can actually mask bigger problems.


Changing The Fidelity Encourages Iteration

Each time we bump up the fidelity of a design, it is another opportunity to rethink the entire canvas. If I could count the number of times I went to redraw a set of components in higher fidelity (because they had been approved) and realized that there was a better way—cue the sigh. Every cycle of iteration allows us to look at something in a new light, especially when it comes to fit and finish as we approach the final look and feel.

In fact, separating visual design from all of the earlier activities allows the aesthetic layer to occupy its own space and time in the process. This is the power of iteration, and it has the potential to take your designs from good to great.


The Fidelity Steers The Conversations

By following a robust sequence of iteration, your team will have more effective and insightful conversations around the designs—and most importantly—at the right times.

Teammates and stakeholders (and even users in your testing) will naturally understand that what you’ve presented to them is a work in progress and that the focus here is on the scaffolding, or the framework of the interface. What’s even more powerful than that is the notion they still have the potential to influence your design with their insight.

There’s something intrinsically inviting about a low fidelity drawing—as if it were literally asking the audience to join in on the fun and suggest a way to improve it, even if it’s just a minor tweak.

In this stage, that insight or suggestion from your audience (which should always be welcomed) is less likely to be about aesthetics, and more likely to be about the user and how they might actually use this thing you’re creating.


Final Thoughts on High-Fidelity Prototypes Versus Low-Fidelity Prototypes

Having said all this, there are some limited scenarios in which it might make sense to keep designs at a relatively high fidelity, but in most cases, it will only do your final product justice to go through the steps and give your ideas the breathing space they need to become the foundation for something great.

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