What is low-fidelity design? UX Question #58

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Kim from Portland, Oregon, asks: What is low-fidelity design?

I love that question. Thanks for asking, Kim. This is UX Question number 58 and I am Ben Judy.

What is low-fidelity design? Well, it’s simply using quick and low-tech methods to create UI design artifacts, such as sketches and wireframes.

When I worked at Intuit we would do rapid, paper prototyping. Literally, taking sheets of construction paper and hand drawing rough UI design ideas with a Sharpie marker. We would draw together in cross functional teams with designers, developers, product managers, and people in other roles. And we would hand our paper prototypes to real customers and stakeholders and ask them to ideate with us and give us feedback on our rough design ideas.

It was a cheap and fast way to get user feedback. It was great for early ideation, and saved us a lot of time and effort before we jumped into our hi fi design tools.

Low fi design allows you to quickly explore different design concepts together. You don’t have to be a trained designer to contribute. Anybody can draw a messy sketch on paper.

Low fi design artifacts invite people to iterate and generate new ideas. A hand drawn sketch or grayscale wireframe has the appearance of an early, unfinished design. People naturally perceive the design isn’t finished and it’s okay to mark it up and suggest big changes.

Another benefit of low fi design is separation of concerns. When you show someone a polished, pixel perfect, high fidelity design they will focus on the visual design aspects: shape, color, space, texture. But what if you need them to focus on just the functionality, or the content or information architecture? With a sketch or a wireframe, there’s no visual design for them to critique. You actually get better feedback on certain aspects of the design.

There are many tools. As I said, you can use paper, whiteboards, or software such as MURAL, Figjam, Axure, Miro, or one I like to use: Balsamiq mockups.

A number of factors—including the rise of advanced UI design tools and greater adoption of design systems—have led to a decrease in the practice of low fi design. This is a trend that seems likely to continue as AI tools to generate hi fi design become more prevalent.

But I say there’s something missing when we skip paper prototyping or IA focused wireframing. I challenge you on your next design project to try several iterations in low fi before going pixel perfect and see if you end up generating design options you otherwise never would have explored.

Keep asking your questions about UX. Next time, I’ll answer the question: How can I manage scope creep?

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