Why Low-Fidelity Prototyping Kicks Butt for Customer-Driven Design

by Andrew Chen

This chapter is a free excerpt from The Viral Startup: A Guide to Designing Viral Loops.

September 15, 2009

Low-fidelity prototyping versus high-fidelity prototyping

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September 15, 2009

Low-fidelity prototyping versus high-fidelity prototyping

In my discussions with designers, one of the interesting recurring conversations is the tools and process they use to prototype and mock up experiences. In particular, there’s a lot of divergence on how high or low-fidelity to go with a prototype.

For designers that primarily come from agency backgrounds, I’ve found that there’s an emphasis on quickly getting to a near pixel-perfect mockup, and the variations are minor in detail. In that worldview, the ideal deliverable is a single version of something that feels high-quality and gets minor feedback from clients. In the client-agency model, if you give your clients a bunch of rough mock ups that seem low-fidelity, then you risk looking unprofessional. Or worse yet, you might get a ton of diverging comments that you then have to work out and iterate – in some cases that’s the last thing you want to do.

This is especially not a good situation for companies that focus on products delivered to customers –  in that case, you mostly want your product to be the right one, no matter how many iterations it takes. As a result, low-fidelity prototyping can be really useful because it aids an iterative, customer-focused approach rather than one where the Great Designer comes up with something directly from his brain.

Here’s a couple of the main advantages:

  • Get better and more honest feedback
  • It’s great for A/B testing
  • Make the cost of mistakes cheap, not expensive
  • Refine the page flow, not the pages
  • Figure out the interaction design rather than the visual design

In addition, after I’m done arguing my point, I’ll recommend some of the tools that have been useful for me in doing low-fidelity prototyping.

Get better and more honest feedback.

The first time I really understood the power of low-fidelity prototyping was when I started doing usability tests on consumer products I had built (This was years ago). Initially, I wondered why anyone did paper-prototyping? I immediately concluded that it was due to a deficiency of many designers that they couldn’t write code, and thus couldn’t do HTML mockups of the products they wanted to build.

But once I started getting people to view and interact with my prototypes, I realized that one of the big problems was that people didn’t give good feedback when the prototype you present to them is too perfect. Rather than telling me about the really high-level things, like “does the value proposition make sense?” instead they would focus on colors, fonts, the layout of the page, etc. And furthermore, they didn’t feel that they could really jump in and build on top of the ideas you showed them, because it was far beyond their capability to duplicate.

Compare this to a simple exercise where you are using hand-drawn cards or drawing paper and are literally sketching stuff out during a customer interview – you’re much more likely to try something out, and have the person you’re interviewing grab your pencil and say “no, more like this!” And that’s exactly the kind of interaction you want.

It’s great for A/B testing.

As for as a metrics-driven approach goes, you have to remember that techniques like A/B testing fundamentally thrive off of variety. In particular, it thrives off of variety at the UI layer, where many small UI changes that cost very little technically can be tried out and optimized. As a result, you don’t want two or three pixel-perfect mockups, you actually want 10 or 20 rough mock ups where you can select only the most high-variance candidates.

Some of the highest variance stuff has to do with changing the order in which you do things, or opt-in versus opt-out, or richer AJAXy interactions. These are all things where it’s easier to generate many candidates through low-fidelity prototypes since you’re often looking at things from a systems level.

Make the cost of mistakes cheap, not expensive.

One of the hidden benefits of having a low-fidelity prototyping process is that it makes changing directions much easier, which naturally facilitates a collaborative design discussion. When you’re using a customer-driven product philosophy that incorporates a lot of outside metrics and qualitative feedback, you’ll probably get multiple people involved in the design process. If it’s done by one person or a small group, and is polished significantly before it reaches the greater group, one of the problems is that it discourages collaboration. It’s very hard for people not to get defensive when they’ve spent a lot of time polishing something only for it to get changed significantly. Using a low-cost process makes it so that you can try a lot of variations cheaply, without any of the emotions involved.

Refine the page flow, not the pages.

One of the highest leverage design  decisions you can make is not about the look of an individual page, but what happens before and after it. For example, you can take a multi-step process and condense it onto one page, or change the ordering of something so that you do something and then register, rather than the other way around. These kinds of design decisions ultimately focus on the order and flow of the user, rather than the look or interactions of any specific page. If you go with a low-fidelity, then it’s easy to draw lots of small pages and link them up in a flow, and do things like cross pages off, change the ordering of a funnel, and lots of things that feel natural when the prototype is very rough. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get caught in the details on the “right” way something works without exploring the options.

Work your way up from low-fidelity to high-fidelity.

Of course, you want to make sure that you use the right process for the right job. So there’s nothing wrong with high-fidelity prototyping, especially when you are in the later stages and thinking about issues like branding, look and feel, and all those other details. One way to keep this process going is to have multiple rough prototyping checkpoints so that design decisions are constantly getting refined – maybe the first step is a sketch on a paper, the next is a rough mockup on the computer, then a detailed mockup, then a rough built-out version, and then iterate to the final product. These steps make it so that all the design decisions are well understood, refined, and debated all the way through.

Tools I recommend for paper prototyping:

  • Number 2 Pencil
  • Giant art pad for drawings – you can get these at an art shop or office store
  • Balsamiq (check out the video on the linked page)
  • Macromedia Fireworks

In general, nothing beats pencil and paper, but that’s just me. I’ve been told that for people who aren’t comfortable drawing, using tools like Balsamiq helps quite a bit.

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