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User Experience Testing: Failing Early with Low-Fi Prototypes

By Daniele Lanza

February 1, 2016

Low-fi prototypes might not be pretty but they sure are useful.

Clients often enter the user testing phase of a project expecting a prototype to be a fully functional, good looking product. But what design thinking teaches us is that the effectiveness and helpfulness of prototypes doesn’t hinge on their level of fidelity at all. In actuality we can tell if a concept is a success or a failure pretty quickly with minimal materials—paper, tape and markers may be all it takes. And even more important, we can learn a lot about our users regardless of how the concept itself performs in the test. I’ve been working with the team on several prototype tests over the past few weeks, all for different projects and at different fidelities, but at the core of it all we’re trying to accomplish the same thing: gain more empathy for our users and try to fail early if we’re going to fail at all. The bottom line is that it doesn’t have to be pretty to achieve that goal.

Back in school while studying industrial design I often prototyped ideas in rough, cheap materials to explore my ideas before refinement. There was just no sense in jumping into expensive materials and spending a lot of time on a concept until I knew it would function the way my customers needed it to. I was once working on a cutting board system and after exhausting my ideas on paper, started building prototypes with cardboard. My goal was really to figure out which designs were feasible and worked the way I intended, so I didn’t want to waste too much time and resources. With cardboard prototypes I was able to handle the objects and quickly identify the directions that needed to be scrapped and step into a higher level of fidelity with the other styles. I continued to increase in fidelity with more solid materials until I reached a single refined design. At that point I had gone through enough testing and iteration that I could feel pretty confident in the success of the final cutting board with any chef who might use it.

The same approach works for digital experiences, services, products—just about anything we design. While recently working on a web product, we did a lot of early hand sketches of user flows and wireframes. They allowed the team to make changes faster and far more efficiently than if we had jumped into a computer program from the start. Most companies have a tendency to invest too much time and resources into an idea early on only to find out that it wasn’t the right solution once it hits the market. We encourage our clients toward lower-fidelity prototypes so we can spend less and learn as much as we can about our end users. It’s interesting how well we are actually able to communicate our ideas with simple sketches or mock-ups. It’s a part of the design process that many organizations are skeptical of, but they quickly learn how valuable these early tests can be when we start talking to users. The point here isn’t to defend or prove our ideas right and we’re not worrying about the look and feel yet—what we’re more interested in learning is what’s wrong as soon as possible so we can correct our course and ultimately save a lot of money for our clients (And we can often do that with just some post-its and cardboard).

Designers often have a hard time presenting a concept or product that isn’t completely fine tuned or production quality, and businesses often have a hard time separating prototype from final product. But at the end of the day, if it isn’t fully functional or visually designed, the prototype is still a success as long as the interaction can be represented. When we’re able to escape the idea of presenting a perfectly designed experience for user testing, we’ll be able to move much more efficiently toward a successful end design.

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