So, you want to create prototypes to help in your design process. However, what kind of prototype should you create? How detailed should your prototype be? What should your prototype be created for? If you’re asking yourself these questions, then great because you’re on the right track! We will go through the different levels of fidelity of prototypes, as well as the kinds of prototypes you can create. We’ve also created some highly useful templates that you can use to guide yourself in your prototype-making process. Afterward, you should be in a much better place for starting to create your own prototypes.

Prototypes begin as extremely rough, quick, and low-cost experiments in the early stages of a design process or Design Thinking project, later moving towards higher-fidelity models, which are more complex, detailed, and costly final drafts. Your design team will continue this process until you manage to uncover or address problems sufficiently and in such a way that the team feels confident that you’ve arrived at a production-ready solution. By then, your solution should meet the needs of the user, as well as the business or organizational objectives.

Fidelity of a Prototype

The fidelity of a prototype refers to its level of completeness and detail. The degree of completeness of the prototypes you build depends on the stage of progress; these include the following:

  • Low fidelity – low cost, rough and quick to build
  • Medium fidelity – slightly more detailed, still rough but closer to the solution
  • High fidelity – much closer to final, very detailed and much more time-consuming

This represents a scale of completeness or closeness to the final product, which differs depending on the type of solutions and needs of the situation. Prototypes can also have different parts with varying levels of fidelity. For example, you can build a prototype with high visual fidelity but with low functional fidelity — which would be useful if you were testing the visual aspects, rather than functional aspects, of the prototype. The main aspects, which are the focus of the prototype, should receive more focus and, ideally, higher fidelity.

Low-Fidelity Prototypes

Low-fidelity prototypes are much easier to execute and less costly; moreover, they require less time and are less “precious” to the design team. This allows you to develop your idea rapidly and iterate through many versions in a short space of time, without draining much in the way of resources. You should mainly use low-fidelity prototypes at the early stages of a project, where you will need to test many assumptions. At this stage, you can use low-fidelity prototypes to weed out major problems with the proposed solution and evaluate and validate the solution hypothesis (i.e., determine whether it meets the team’s internal requirements as well as the user’s needs).

Paper interfaces are an example of low-fidelity prototypes.

The low-fidelity stages of prototyping also feed nicely into the early divergent stages of ideation, where there is freedom to explore and generate new ideas and solutions. You can keep testing and iterating your low-fidelity prototypes until the team is satisfied that you all have explored enough variants. You can then move the models that make it through early rounds of testing to higher and higher levels of fidelity in order to explore the finer details of execution.

Low-fidelity prototypes may include rough sketches, paper models, simple storyboards, or rough paper prototypes of digital interfaces. You would base your choice of the type of prototype on the type of solution you are seeking to create.

When to Use Low-Fidelity Prototypes

Use low-fidelity prototypes when you need to test rapidly and cheaply and explore a wide range of options in order to figure out the best ways of executing your ideas. Use them as a proof of concept model to test out and rapidly present ideas in tangible form.

Medium-Fidelity Prototypes

After working through some early models and resolving the most obvious and blatant of issues, you should move out of the divergent mode of the prototyping phase towards refinement and testing slightly finer details. In order to progress to the next stage of prototyping, you need to add more details and refinements to prototypes, making them resemble final products more closely.

Medium-fidelity prototypes take longer to develop, for the above-mentioned reasons and may be costlier. This is why you should test and eliminate enough early-stage problems and assumptions with lower-fidelity models before moving on to using medium-fidelity prototypes.

Author/Copyright holder: Dereckson. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY 3.0

Wireframes, like the one above created on the software Balsamiq, are commonly used medium-fidelity prototypes.

When to Use Medium-Fidelity Prototypes

Use medium-fidelity prototypes when you need to give people a better sense of what the solution or part of the solution might look like — and when you have already tested and validated some early assumptions. Medium-fidelity prototypes are great for refining the execution of solutions, while still providing room for changing direction and testing out options.

High-Fidelity Prototypes

High-fidelity prototypes are the last line of testing before moving on to execution of solutions. They allow for providing an accurate representation of what the solution might look like with fine details; better still, they may include much of the expected functionality. High-fidelity models may even contain all the functional elements required although we may execute these using less-than-optimal mechanisms or technology.

High-fidelity prototypes aim to provide the closest representation of the idea possible without the time and cost required of the final production.

High-fidelity prototypes, like mock-ups produced in the application Sketch, have a high level of detail and are close representations of the final product.

When to Use High-Fidelity Prototypes

Use high-fidelity prototypes when you need to test the full spectrum of dynamics of the completed solution as well as analyze it for functional, visual and experience purposes. It provides a much more realistic picture of what the end product may be like and allows for final-stage refinements and experience tests. High-fidelity prototypes are excellent for the final selling of ideas when funding decisions need to be made, or when potential markets are being approached for feedback.

Prototyping for Empathy

While you will create most prototypes in order to evaluate the ideas that your team has come up with, it is also possible to use prototypes to develop empathy with your users, even when you do not have a specific product in mind to test. We call this “prototyping for empathy” or “active empathy”, and we usually do it in the early stages of a design project. Use empathy prototypes to gain an understanding of the problem as well as your users’ mindsets about pertinent issues. You will find that using empathy prototypes is best after you have some basic research and understanding of the design problem and users. They are extremely useful in helping you probe deeper into certain issues or areas. Before building an empathy prototype, hence, you will need to figure out what aspects of a user or the environment you would like to probe deeper. Then, build prototypes that will effectively evaluate those aspects.

For instance, if you want to find out about your users’ mindsets towards reading, you could ask your users to draw how they think about reading. After they have finished, you could ask them about what they have drawn and — from there — understand how they think.

Alternatively, you could create an empathy prototype for yourself and your team-mates so as to help you step into your users’ shoes. If you are building prototypes for people with visual impairments, such as the elderly, you could create a quick prototype by applying some gel onto a pair of lightly tinted sunglasses. Wearing this prototype would simulate the poor eyesight of the elderly and enable you to gain an idea of the obstacles they face.

If you are considering prototyping your design, contact Euro Machining – proudly serving the San Jose and Santa Clara, CA communities.