Low-Fidelity or High-Fidelity Prototypes for Software?

October 12th, 2006

Let me quickly explain the terms here. Fidelity refers to the level of detail, accuracy or coverage of a prototype. It can relate to functionality but most people use the term in relation to visual appearance and that’s what I’ll be referring to here.

So the lowest of the low-fidelity prototypes are very quick hand sketches while the highest are fully detailed, pixel perfect renditions.

The obvious advantages of low-fidelity prototypes are the speed at which they can be put together and therefore the low cost involved. After all, anyone can quickly scribble designs on a piece of paper.

But one of the things we hear discussed a lot is that prototypes, especially early ones, really have to be low-fidelity. They need to impress upon people that they are obviously mock-ups and not the real thing. Otherwise, if you use high-fidelity prototypes, you may encounter these negative consequences:

  1. When trying to elicit feedback on a design, you find that people pick up on irrelevant details like the colours or the choice of image instead of the content and workflow.
     
  2. They may be so WOW’d by the beauty of your design that they’re unable to provide constructive critisism or they may be reluctant to do so for fear of undoing all your hard work.
     
  3. Stakeholders may think that the “product” looks so finished that they complain bitterly when they can’t see much “progress” after 6 months of development and implementation.

Of course there are many truths to this argument but, for the most part, it depends upon the target audience and their level of understanding of what the prototypes represent.

Project managers, analysts and developers will have no trouble at all in understanding the scope of a user interface prototype and, in may cases, a high-fidelity prototype will help to pinpoint areas of ‘over ambitious’ design that might take many months to implement when a simpler alternative will work just as well.

For everyone else, a straight-forward explanation of the scope of the prototype is usually enough. If the stakeholders really don’t get it then you may be in trouble further down the line!

The irony of point 3 is that although a low-fidelity prototype might be better in lowering expectations that the product will be “finished in no time at all”, higher managers and stakeholders don’t always respond well to them. They’re not impressed by the rough appearance and prefer to see nicely polished, fancy displays – something they can envisage as being a final product they or their customers can use.

With specialised tools like GUI Design Studio now available, high-fidelity prototypes are becoming much easier, faster and cheaper to produce and the once held advantages of low-fidelity prototypes are becoming insignificant.

As far as we know, our customers are all enjoying the ability to create high-fidelity prototypes and designs but we understand the need to use low-fidelity presentations on occassion.

That is why GUI Design Studio provides “Outline” display modes and the ability to easily change the overall font of a design to give it a more hand-drawn, rough and ready feel. And to be able to switch back to normal again.

Here’s our trusty dialog design example in all its XP glory:

Windows XP style dialog

 

And here it is again looking like a quickly drawn mockup after a couple of setting changes:

Mockup style dialog

 

You can see a quick tutorial video (about 1 minute) of how this transformation took place here.

Of course, if you really want to, you can also work with paper sketches by scanning them in and incorporating them as images. Place navigation boxes over the buttons and other areas then link them together just like any other design element.

 

The most important thing with prototypes is to define exactly what their purpose is, then to create them with just the right amount of effort and functionality to convey enough information to obtain agreement on what needs to be implemented and what doesn’t.

 

So what are your experiences with low or high-fidelity prototypes? Do you agree or disagree with what’s been said here? Maybe you can’t see the point of creating prototypes at all?

Leave a comment and let us know your opinions!
 

 

4 Responses to “Low-Fidelity or High-Fidelity Prototypes for Software?”

  1. Rahul Verma says:

    I totaly agree with what has been said here, I like the way your software converts the high fidelity to low fidelity designs, but this means we have to spend time in creating the high fidelity one’s first before converting them. We do low fidelity because early stages of product inception requires concepts which iterate frequently. The statements made in the above topic are very valid and true and I have experienced similar situations.

  2. Turtle says:

    Hi Rahul

    Thanks for commenting and sharing your experiences.

    The low/high-fidelity transitions in GUI Design Studio can work either way of course! But there’s no advantage to working in “Outline” mode unless it frees your creativity, for example, by making you less obsessive about perfect control placement and more inclined to just slap them on as fast as possible in roughly the right place.

    I’m guessing you use pencil and paper for your low-fidelity prototypes (correct me if I’m wrong) and we also do this at the early conceptual stages of a design.

    However, we also find ourselves moving more towards using GUI Design Studio for that too now. There’s a simple example of a wireframe mockup in our new User Manual but we find it quick and easy to create concept layouts using simple boxes and text.

    Being electronic designs, they’re easier to duplicate, re-arrange and distribute than paper sketches. We also like the ability to add navigation to bring even these simple wireframes to life. It really helps with conceptual visualisation.

    We’d love to hear some more experiences from you all and where you’ve found advantages and disadvantages of using different prototyping methods.

  3. Doug says:

    I would say most of our (internal) customers appreciate a “high-fidelity” prototype and once they see that any functionality beyond rudimentary navigation is just not there, they understand the prototype is–as I like to say–like those fake movie sets where you only see the front of the building and there is nothing behind it.

    However, there was one experience where I might have liked using the “outline” to appear lo-fi, because the customer got fixated on an early prototype and made it harder to make large, necessary changes to the design later. Perhaps the “lo-fi” feel would have better communicated the transient and iterative nature of the design process…

  4. Turtle says:

    Doug

    Thanks very much for sharing your experiences. I like your “movie set” analogy.

    Hindesight is a wonderful thing. You never really know how a customer is going to react to a prototype until you show it to them! But you’ll be able to try a different approach with them next time.