A Low-Fidelity Prototype and a High-Fidelity Prototype have different goals. A hi-fi prototype is interactive; low-fi prototypes, however, are easy to make. Which will suit your needs better? In this article, we’re going to help you decide if you should base your prototyping on a pen and paper drawing (Low-Fidelity Prototype) or on working code (High-Fidelity Prototype).
As we’ve mentioned in our first article about prototyping, prototypes are functional maps of your products. They present what you intend to build, how you plan to do it, and, maybe most importantly, what experience your solution will deliver to your user.
Prototyping done right can answer many important questions and minimize the risk of failure. Because remember – statistically, most new products don’t succeed. Building prototypes can help you avoid this nightmare scenario and protect your budget.
However, before you jump into action, there’s an important choice you have to make – what kind of prototype you’re going to develop.
Prototype vs Wireframe – What's the Difference?
First, let's draw a distinction between prototypes – which are the topic of this article – and wireframes, which we'll only briefly define.
In comparison to prototypes, wireframes are only simple, extremely low-fidelity representations of the initial concept of the product. CareerFoundry proposes a good analogy to the human body. A wireframe is the skeleton, the barebone structure of the product. A prototype is the brain, which decides how a person should operate and interact with those around it. Rather than focus on the look and feel or the functionalities, wireframes concentrate on solving initial problems and are traditionally drawn by hand in black and white.
Prototyping: Key Differences Between High-Fidelity Prototypes and Low-Fidelity (or Wireframes)
Now, moving on to prototyping. As you can tell by the title, you have two main prototyping choices which refer to fidelity. Practically, the fidelity determines how much the prototype resembles the look and feel of the intended product – mainly its level of detail.
The two options are:
They’re easy to make and quick to enhance or correct. All you need to start is a pen and paper. At their core, low-fidelity prototypes are very good at presenting the main functionalities of a solution, but at the cost of no aesthetical bells and whistles. For this reason, low-fidelity prototypes are also sometimes called wireframes; but in our eyes, wireframes are not the same, since they don't concentrate so much on the functional perspective.
High-fidelity prototypes aim at depicting the intended solution as closely as possible. They present the functionality of the final product with an additional emphasis on the aesthetical side. They’re interactive, clickable, and, to some extent, already usable. Done right, they can even become a base for the final solution.
Additionally, some also distinguish a third path – medium-fidelity prototypes. As the name suggests, these prototypes are something in-between the main two distinctions; they offer limited functionality but have some clickable elements that depict the interactions and navigation options within the intended solution. In this article, however, we won’t expand on medium fidelity. Instead, we’ll concentrate on the broader picture, discussing the key differences between the two extremes.
Is a High-Fidelity Prototype Always Better?
Although one might instinctively think that high-fidelity prototypes offer a more in-depth perspective due to their complexity and thus are better to make data-driven decisions, it’s not necessarily true in every case. Both prototyping types have their pros and cons. They also serve different purposes.
For example, spending a sizable budget on top-notch UI of a half-backed idea is hardly the optimal choice. But then again, presenting a pencil drawing to a big client (or your boss) may just not look very professional.
It's important to understand clearly when to opt for which choice. That’s why now, we’re going to take a look at the main benefits of both options.
Low-Fidelity Prototyping Benefits
The pros of low-fidelity prototypes revolve around agility and speed.
Low-fidelity prototypes are:
- Easy to create. When compared to interactive prototypes, drafting a wireframe is fairly straightforward. It also saves more time for purely conceptual tasks, like organizing the content, menus, and sub-menus.
- More flexible. Low-fidelity prototypes can be easily and quickly changed. This leaves more space for creative feedback and swift upgrades. Compared to a fully working prototype, this is a great perk for projects that are still in the early stages of planning.
- Cost-effective. Drafting low-fi protoypes only requires manpower (and some basic design tools like Sketch or… a pencil). This makes it a great option if you only have a half-baked idea that’s not worth investing a sizable budget in (just yet).
So, as you can see, low-fidelity prototypes are generally optimal for concepts that are not yet set in stone and need some more basic design work to be fully born.
High-Fidelity Prototyping Benefits
Now, the benefits of high-fidelity prototypes are mainly based on advanced functionalities and good looks.
High-fidelity prototypes are:
- Easier to assess. Since well-done high-fidelity closely resemble the final product, it’s easier to review them. It’s also way easier to collect feedback from potential end-users and assess the value it will potentially be able to deliver.
- Better to present. Being aesthetically polished and interactive, high-fidelity prototypes are easier to present to stakeholders who aren’t experienced with design and could have a hard time imagining how a solution may look based only on wireframes.
- Ready to develop. If done right, the additional work spent on high-fidelity prototypes doesn’t have to be a waste of time. The code and interface can become a base for future development. For example, it can be used to develop an MVP swiftly.
Ergo, high-fidelity prototypes are the perfect choice if you have a more detailed idea about what you’d like to develop. They’re also the only viable choice if you need to present your idea to stakeholders. After all, it’s not likely that somebody will give you a million dollars for a project based only on some paper drawings!
Use Cases for a Low-Fidelity and High-Fidelity Prototype
So, essentially, low-fidelity prototypes will prove most valuable for:
- validating basic product functionalities with the entire team,
- presenting the concept’s fundamental ideas,
- brainstorming further improvements,
- presenting the early stages of work.
On the other hand, high-fidelity prototypes deliver the most benefits at:
- advanced usability evaluations,
- closing the design process,
- showcasing the nearly finished idea to stakeholders,
- testing your idea before fully developing it to avoid risking your entire budget.
Importantly – Low-Fidelity and High-Fidelity Prototypes Aren’t Competitors!
Although very different, these two prototyping approaches work very well with each other.
Ideally, if you’re just only starting to draft your product idea, you should start with low-fidelity wireframes to polish the concept. Finally, if the idea survives the initial assessment, you can start working on graphical elements and pieces of code to develop a more interactive experience.