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The Art of Prototyping: When to Go Low and When to Go High

Alessio Symons

Alessio Symons

December 3, 2019

From the outside, prototyping appears to be a step—a necessary moment in a project when an early version of the product is brought to life. But in actuality, prototyping is a process. 

It is a process that begins the very first time someone picks up a pen and begins to sketch out the roughest, most basic image of what the product might look like. It’s how ideas become things, rather than just vague notions in people’s brains. 

When it comes to prototyping, the crucial question to ask is this: What type of prototype should you build, and when?In theory, the answer seems simple: You should move from low-fidelity prototypes to high-fidelity prototypes, incorporating feedback along the way. But projects and products (and the people who work on them) are nuanced beasts. Prototyping becomes most valuable when you understand exactly why you’re building different prototypes at specific phases in a project.

But first… What is the difference between low-fidelity and high-fidelity prototypes?

Low-fidelity prototypes are simple no-tech or low-tech concepts. In software product development, they tend to come in two forms: paper prototypes and clickable wireframes. These prototypes can be put together rapidly, and their main goal is to prove the validity of the central idea rather than catering to the exact experience of the end user.

High-fidelity prototypes, on the other hand, are highly functional designs that exist as an early version of the final product. These prototypes are more expensive and time consuming to put together, but their well-developed content, defined design, and high interactivity provide a more realistic sense of the product’s usability and likeability with end users.

Both forms are necessary for designing a high-quality product. However, using the wrong one at the wrong time can either heap extra costs on a project or result in a great idea being cast aside because it wasn’t presented in the right way.

So… When do you go low, and when do you go high?

Using the right form of prototyping at the right moment is both an art and a science. The variables of each project and the landscape you’re designing for will constantly shift, so you should regularly ask yourself: Why are we building this prototype and what impact are we hoping for it to have?

Scenario #1 – Defining the Product

If you’re building a prototype to… align on a central idea in order to focus the team’s thinking…

You should use… Low-fidelity prototyping.

Not only is low-fidelity quicker, it also allows every project member to get involved in the creative process. Give anyone a pen and paper and they can prototype; in other words, your central idea will be bolstered by the brains of everyone in the room. Using a high-fidelity approach in the idea phase commits you to one or two ideas too early—it’s difficult to pivot once a significant investment has already been made.

Scenario #2 – Presenting to a Key Stakeholder for Sign-Off

If you’re building a prototype to… gain buy-in from someone with executive powers and move the project forward…

You should use… High-fidelity prototyping.

Key stakeholders are hard pressed for time. They are focused on the result of investment—not the process of how you got there. By presenting a designed, thought-out version of the product, you can highlight your work and unite the project team around the idea. Though you still have work to do, by presenting a clear idea using great design, you’ll give key stakeholders a framework for feedback. As a result, the project will be less likely to be derailed by an off-the-cuff comment or miscommunication.

Scenario #3 – User Testing

If you’re building a prototype to… see if your target user is interested in the product…

You should use… Both.

There is no hard-and-fast rule for which type of prototype to build, even when your goals are clear. User testing with low-fidelity prototypes is great for assessing desirability and demand validation. Low-fidelity prototypes allow you to test the central idea behind your product, rather than focusing on design and functionality. However, the latter two components are critical aspects of real-world user experiences. This is why it’s essential to view prototyping as a process rather than a step: After you’ve gained feedback on the low-fidelity prototypes, you should incorporate it into a high-fidelity version for users to test. Following this process will give you abundant data regarding how users feel about the “final” product.

The central answer to every prototyping question is impact. Whether that’s impact of getting the team excited or testing the impact a product will have with your target consumer. Prototyping looks from the outside to be a science, a few engineers sat plugging away at lines of code to make an early version of a product, but in reality, prototyping is an art form of choice.

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