Design fidelity refers to the level of detail and functionality included in a prototype. Fidelity can vary in interactivity, visuals, content and commands, and other areas.
When you’re getting ready to begin prototyping, you’ll need to decide how closely you want it to match the end result, which will also dictate how much time and energy you need to put into it.
Low-fidelity prototypes, for example, are simple and low-tech concepts. All you need to get started is a pen and paper. The goal is to turn your ideas into testable artifacts that you can then use to collect and analyze feedback in the early stages.
On the other hand, high-fidelity prototypes are highly functional and interactive. They are very close to the final product, with most of the necessary design assets and components developed and integrated. Hi-fi prototypes are often used in the later stages to test usability and identify issues in the workflow.
Which one is better? That depends.
Benefits of low-fi prototyping
Focus on design and concepts: Without the pressure of making every page linked, clickable, and interactive, you can worry less about the more technical parts of prototyping and spend more energy on ideation.
Real-time iteration: Let’s say you’re gathering customer feedback on your sketched prototype. During this test, you can quickly redo part of the design based on customer comments in real time, in just a few minutes.
Accessible to everyone: Everyone can doodle. With low-fidelity prototyping, even non-designers can participate in the design process and think through content, menus, and flow.
Benefits of high-fidelity prototyping
More familiar to users: High-fidelity prototypes look like live software to customers, meaning participants would be more likely to behave naturally during testing.
Pinpoint specific components to test: You can dive deep into a single component (like flow, visuals, engagement, or navigation) during user testing. This allows you to get detailed feedback on certain elements of the design that would not be possible with pen and paper.
Further reading: Why all prototyping is rapid prototyping
More presentable to stakeholders: Clients and team members will get a clear idea of how the product will look and work before it ever goes live. You can also set clear expectations with developers in the early stages on how much time will be needed to build your prototype and have a finished product.
Identify the right fidelity for your prototype
Prototyping at the wrong fidelity is one of the top prototyping mistakes. Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, you should evaluate it based on each individual scenario.
For speed and flexibility, low-fidelity prototypes may be best. If you’re already working off customer feedback and want to gather more data on specific areas, you may choose high-fidelity prototypes.
The most important thing to remember: Just like you’d never listen to the same rock ‘n’ roll song for every occasion, you shouldn’t default to the same level of fidelity when prototyping.