Why go lo-fi?

When I first started out as a graphic designer, I used a notebook to take notes, make small sketches and conduct calculations. I organized my thoughts before diving into Adobe’s Creative Suite to begin finding the right type or page arrangements.

Those rough sketches were always intended to get myself organized and resembled annotated diagrams more than artful layouts or page spreads. I’m sure to anyone else, those sketches would have looked like half-baked ideas or ramblings of a design nerd with no drawing skills (which is half true); but for me, it was an important step in preparing for detailed design work.

I never included those types of sketches in my portfolio; your work was always meant to be presented as the final, production-ready product. I tried to figure out how to include them, but the sketches just didn’t seem beautiful enough to share with anyone. And, unfortunately, messy design isn’t what gets you hired.

In those times, I’d usually get feedback after combing through our stock photography catalog, fiddling with the page elements and finding the right color palette. It took a lot of time to get the details far enough along for my creative director to provide feedback.

I once had a boss who had a hard time reviewing in-progress comps. She’d always managed to focus on the parts that I hadn’t yet fully figured out and tell me that they weren’t quite working. It was frustrating because I felt like it was a bad thing to be “still working on it”.

I would have to go back to the drawing board and redesign something because critique did not go well. I felt like I was wasting tons of time trying to read her mind, and I was junior enough to not know how to solicit what she was looking for. I’m sure, dear reader, you’ve felt caught in an cycle of guess-try-repeat like this before.

Making it pretty (fast)

After a reprieve from pretty-making during a mind-expanding and process-altering grad school experience (stories for another time), I now find myself in the SF UX/tech industry dealing with similar challenges again.

I’m not sure if it’s an SF thing (the “anyone can make an beautiful app in a weekend and get rich” mentality) or if it’s just the UX industry as a whole, but I’m shocked by the intense focus on making that pretty thing as fast as possible.

Prototyping in InVision

Prototyping in InVision

From a design standpoint, this might be fueled by an arsenal of apps for creating production-level looking designs: InvisionFramerPrincipleHypeMarvelProto.ioUXPinAxure. Or, it could be the influence of flat design and the talk about design as the great differentiator.

When I transitioned from designing for beauty to designing for people in graduate school, I came into the habit of whiteboard sketching, using post-its for more than notes, making paper models and acting out scenarios with my teammates. I learned from my teammates and adapted designs on the fly. We created artifacts that had nothing to do with the final design solutions, but were always strengthening our concepts as the process moved forward.

Even in my own recent projects, I’ve been struck by a focus on high-fidelity renderings early in the design process. First-cut concepts are rendered in a shiny (and animated) glory that makes it very difficult to tell it’s an early idea.

I personally struggle to provide my teammates the critique that they need in these situations because I don’t know what we’re trying to solve. Do you want typography tips or do you want me to make sense of the user value? And, if you want me to critique everything, it’s a heck of a lot easier to focus on the easy stuff (like “fix this type weight”) than to tell you, “I’m not sure I believe your product.”

There’s not necessarily data to prove this point, but I definitely have my own hesitancy towards telling a fellow designer to start all over. Maybe I’m too nice, but I’m also aware of the work that can go into getting a design to that fidelity level (whether or not they have one of these easy-to-use tools).

Why it’s worth making ugly things

“Fancy” prototyping tools afford us the ability to design in high-fidelity (slick transitions and all) quickly and early on in the project, but what’s our goal in working that way?

Some designers prefer the computer and I respect that. But design is consumed in more places than a computer (and always has been), requiring complex interactions and scenarios; it seems like we delaying the learning process to make something that looks cleaner.

A physical prototype for a fitness tracker

A physical prototype for a fitness tracker

Stacks of post-its stuck on a cellphone can be tested in real time in the real world. And, if you suddenly realize you need a new screen or a design or user wants to see it done a different way, it’s just takes a few minutes with a pen to bring that new screen to life. If you’re using a pencil, just turn that puppy upside-down and put that eraser to work (though I’m personally a fan of not losing anything, but just adding new layers to see the progression). If you had to do that same work in InVision or Sketch, it will take more time and effort to respond to your users. It’s far more valuable to spend those resources iterating cheaply early on, so when you get on the computer, you have far fewer version to work from.

Whiteboard sketches for a client website homepage

Whiteboard sketches for a client website homepage

I’ve seen designers (myself included!) make detailed sketches on whiteboards, but then deem them not worthy enough to share with users or clients.

  • Are they concerned that without a .sketch file there was no design done?
  • Do they only know how to communicate design using high-fidelity tools?
  • Is it because our clients don’t trust us and need to see something clearly beyond their personal skills to justify paying that designer at all?
  • Is it because design is more about making artifacts than thinking?

These are just hypothesis, but I hear it in client’s undertones and in the anxiety of late-working designers. And, I’m sure I’m missing something too.

I find that pretty disappointing. If we can educate our clients better and present the “dirty artifacts” well, can we take this part of the process out of the shadows and pixels, into the real world?

Fidelity, so what?

Since the UX field is famous for using competing definitions, I’ll be as clear as I can here. Fidelity is the volume and granularity of detail in design elements. So, low-fidelity designs are “rough cuts” of ideas that tend to be executed in analog materials; they often contain little of the actual content, but instead contain placeholders. High-fidelity designs tend to be chock full of content and have clear structure and components which are often executed digitally and sometimes (though I see it more and more) with visual design such as colors, typefaces and artwork.

And, thanks to the new high-fidelity world where everything seems to be rendered in high-fidelity, we have a tendency to describe our artifacts with phrases like sketches and prototypes, using them interchangeably. In a classic sense, sketches and prototypes are different beasts and tend to be used differently in phases of a project. Sketches happen at the beginning and prototypes reflect a sophisticated design or test of optimization (A or B).

Framework courtesy of Bill Buxton, Sketching User Experiences

Framework courtesy of Bill Buxton, Sketching User Experiences

But, I’d argue the crux to it all is the goal of the artifact — not if it’s a sketch or a prototype. The volume of detail is dependent on what you need to learn and this is where I would disagree with Bill Buxton (and the federal government) in their assertion that “Low-fidelity prototypes are often paper-based and do not allow user interactions.”

It’s very possible to test user interaction in low-fidelity as long as you’re clear about what you’re trying to learn. With a few bits of paper and markers, a small group could create the user experience of a genetics-based dating app (which one group did at EchoUser during a bi-yearly offsite). You could determine if the idea would resonate with users, if the process too long, what the phases to the service are, what channels work best, how many elements would need to be developed, and even how you’ll make money.

Prototyping at EchoUser — just an idea, bit of empathy and mediocre acting :)

Prototyping at EchoUser — just an idea, bit of empathy and mediocre acting :)

Low-fidelity designs really shine when you share what you’re working on — not from working by yourself and going through the motions of making artifacts. Without socializing the ideas, you end up making a lot of assumptions and you might discover yourself debating between the inclusion of the Facebook social graph or whether you ask for friends’ email addresses before you’ve even determined whether a user’s friends would give a crap.

By starting at a low-fidelity, you also make the process more accessible and encourage your teammates and users to co-create with you in a way that helps you learn even more. Co-creation is a powerful concept that embraces everyone’s ability to feel empathy and be planful in what we make. Especially when you work with experts, even if that expertise is in being a mom who regularly juggles the demands of two young children, they need a space to give their voice.

If you only ever show something in high-fidelity, it becomes harder for users to find themselves in a finished-looking idea. The only question they’ll focus on is: do I love it or hate it? Users won’t necessarily see it as something they can mold into what they need or want; when there’s already enough choices in the market, users just walk away from the choices they don’t get or like.

If the user is given the space — and the chance — to talk about what they need, the designer can learn so much earlier in the design process about how the product fits into user’s lives. While co-creation does require analysis by the designer, it can have a huge impact in fundamental decisions that are easier to make at the beginning of a project. It’s ultimately up to the designer to decide how to use this information moving forward.

Designers will always need to end up in high-fidelity (depending on the scope) in order to really bring an idea to life. But, I’d argue that we’re mistreating a critical part of our own design journey as a designer by treating low-fidelity work like a dirty, little secret. If you haven’t tried these types of low-fidelity sketches and prototypes, you could be missing important reality checks needed for your idea to succeed. And, if you use these methods but don’t share them, your clients will continue to misunderstand your process and your users won’t be given the space to help you get to the right solution sooner.