High-Fidelity vs Low-Fidelity Prototypes Explained
Learn the difference between low-fidelity and high-fidelity designs, and when you should use which.
Prototyping is one of the most important stages of UX development. Should you opt for a high fidelity prototype? Or will low fidelity wireframes better meet your needs? Do you even need to wireframe at all? In this guide, we consider the pros and cons of high fidelity vs low fidelity prototypes, before taking a closer look at a couple of high and low fidelity wireframe examples using Framer.
Understanding low fidelity vs high fidelity wireframes, mockups, and prototypes
What is fidelity in a design context?
When considering the differences between high fidelity vs low fidelity in UX design, it can help to think of music recordings. If you’ve ever listened to music on a traditional stereo system – a CD or vinyl record player, for example – you might already be familiar with the term hi-fi. This is simply an abbreviation of the words high fidelity, meaning high quality – or, more precisely, a “highly faithful recording of the original musical performance.” Indeed, fidelity is just another way of saying “faithful”; i.e. how true a reproduction is to the original.
But when it comes to low fidelity vs high fidelity wireframes, prototypes, and mockups, the process gets reversed. It’s not how close the copy is to the original, but how closely the original sketch resembles the end product.
It’s like the difference between high and low resolution in design and photography; think of the smooth edges and fine detail of a high resolution file, vs the crude pixelation of a low res one. Similarly, an app simulation can either be highly realistic, detailed, and close to the final version, or just a very rough and ready indication of what the fully developed product might look like.
Simply put, then, a low fidelity prototype is one that doesn’t look exactly like the finished product. Meanwhile, a high fidelity prototype may appear identical to the real thing - even if in practice some differences exist “under the hood.”
Both methods have their pros and cons. So which approach should you take when prototyping? In order to help you decide, let’s consider the respective advantages and disadvantages of high fidelity vs low fidelity prototyping in turn.
Low fidelity prototype advantages and disadvantages
A low fidelity prototype can take a variety of forms, from a series of rough paper sketches each intended to represent an individual screen or state of the app, to a fully interactive yet still somewhat basic wireframe simulation of the software. However, while low fidelity prototyping offers numerous advantages, it won’t be the right choice for everyone all of the time. Consider whether the following points meet your needs.
Lo-fi prototyping advantages
The main advantage of low fidelity testing is simply that it can help save considerable time. This makes low fidelity prototyping ideal for when you want to get quick feedback on ideas, to be able to return to the drawing board and produce improved iterations almost immediately.
A low fidelity prototype doesn’t need to be flashy or beautiful, but simply communicate content, layout, and flow. By opting to produce a low fidelity prototype, you prioritize the testing of functionality over form; stripping away unnecessary distractions to make sure you’ve absolutely nailed the architecture of your app before considering aesthetics.
This encourages greater levels of creative thinking and experimentation. For this reason, a low fidelity prototype is often the best option for early testing.
The lowest fidelity app simulations consist of no more than quick sketches on paper using pen or pencil. This opens up the process to everyone, regardless of their design skills. As a result, we can say that a low fidelity prototype will often encourage greater levels of group collaboration in the ideation process.
A lo-fi prototype can be very basic indeed and yet still do its job excellently. Clearly this makes developing a low fidelity prototype a much cheaper option than a hi-fi one, which will require the skills of a professional designer and may take days or weeks to complete.
Lo-fi prototyping disadvantages
Asks a lot of users
A low fidelity prototype puts the responsibility of creative imagination on the user. And, unfortunately, just as some people cannot imagine themselves living in a house unless they see it fully furnished and ready to move in, some people also lack the imagination to envision how a finished app might look merely from viewing a low fidelity mockup.
This makes the lo-fi route more appropriate for early-stage internal prototyping than for cases where the simulation also needs to be presented to external parties who may lack the necessary experience to understand your vision.
Paper prototypes require manual presentation
With the lowest fidelity prototypes – i.e. simple sketches – there always needs to be someone present to guide the tester through the session. Effectively this person acts as the computer, providing the tester with the correct pages according to the choices they make as they navigate the app’s architecture.
The fact that somebody needs to conduct the testing session also means that you can’t easily share a very low fidelity prototype with people in remote locations (although a digital low fidelity prototype doesn’t suffer from this problem of course).
While it’s often surprising how much functionality can be communicated via even the most basic lo-fi prototypes, clearly there is a limit to the kind of technical specifications that can be effectively simulated by means of paper and pen alone. Indeed, more complex transitions, interactions, and animations will not be easily understood when viewed using such a lo-fi tool.
If you’re already at a stage in the design process where testing high-tech interactions of this kind has become essential, it may be time to move up to either a lo-fi wireframe or a fully hi-fi simulation.
Low fidelity prototype examples
This low fidelity prototype example illustrates the way in which even very basic hand-drawn images can effectively communicate a product interface and its architecture.
In these low fidelity wireframe examples, we can see how a more technically evolved low fidelity simulation tool is better suited to communicating more complex interactions. Nonetheless, the simulation remains basic and doesn’t provide many ideas of how the finished product will look in terms of aesthetics.
High fidelity prototype advantages and disadvantages
Although a low fidelity prototype or wireframe can be an excellent way of quickly testing ideas, once a project is more advanced and you have a clearer idea of your final goals, high fidelity wireframes or prototypes will often work out being better solutions. Again, though, this will depend on your precise needs. So before opting to develop a high fidelity prototype or wireframe, consider whether the following points coincide with your immediate objectives.
Hi-fi prototyping advantages
Fully finished aesthetics
In terms of aesthetics, there may be no difference whatsoever between a high fidelity mockup or prototype and the product that will eventually ship to end users This provides testers with a more accurate indication of user experience. In turn testers will likely provide you with more meaningful feedback on your prototype.
The main advantage of a high fidelity app simulation is not only that it looks a lot like the final product, but also that it can behave a lot like the final product too if required. And as some interactions can’t easily be communicated by lo-fi means, a high fidelity simulation may be the only way to provide testers with a realistic impression of what your app is capable of.
Accurate indication of content
If desired, a high fidelity prototype may include exactly the same content as the final version of the app or desktop software. This will provide testers with a much more detailed and convincing experience.
When presenting to external stakeholders such as clients or investors, a high fidelity mockup or prototype is always going to make a stronger impression than a low fidelity prototype. This will help to persuade users to buy into or back your project.
Hi-fi prototyping disadvantages
Clearly, it takes a lot more time to develop a prototype that looks, feels, and behaves like the real thing than it does to quickly scribble down a few ideas in a notepad. Indeed, where a low fidelity prototype can take minutes to sketch out, developing a high fidelity mockup, wireframe, or prototype may take months.
Of course, if you only move to high fidelity app testing once you’ve ironed out all the main points regarding UX architecture and flow, this work will not go to waste. Indeed, assuming you’ve done a good job so far, any tweaking at this stage is likely to be subtle, and so most of the prototype will probably find its way into the final product too.
As the old saying goes, time is money. Meaning that a high fidelity simulation is unlikely to be a feasible option for those working on a very tight budget.
High fidelity prototype example
high fidelity prototype
In this example, it’s obvious the difference that a high fidelity prototype can make in terms of the impression it leaves on users. This underlines the importance of developing a high fidelity prototype when the simulation will be shared with external stakeholders who may need convincing of the value of your product.
When to use high vs low fidelity wireframes and prototypes
For designers, understanding when to create in a certain fidelity is an important skill. Both high and low fidelity wireframes have their place. As do high and low fidelity mockups and prototypes. But their use isn’t interchangeable.
It’s the same with hand-drawn low fidelity designs; although they end up being the best option in some cases – particularly in the early stages of development – it wouldn’t be wise to just assume that paper and pencil sketches are the right approach every time.
Think of the word fidelity as referring to detail, complexity, and how similar the simulation is to the final result. If you’re at an early stage in the development process, where it’s mostly the ideas that matter, then aim low before moving on to a more complex approach. The same goes for simple ideas, or where you don’t have a lot of time; here a lo-fi solution will usually be most appropriate. But if you’re looking to test an app simulation that offers a user experience that is much closer to the final product, or the idea is complex and risks becoming confusing for users if not properly thought out, then aim high instead.
Just keep in mind that the fidelity of a design can vary in a number of different ways; from the presentation to the degree of interactivity possible, and even the actual content itself. In practice, then, an app simulation could be hi-fi in some ways, while remaining lo-fi in others.
Which approach you should take when prototyping depends entirely on your needs and circumstances; e.g. what stage you are currently at in the development of the product; the intended outcomes of the prototyping phase; and, naturally, also your resources.
For an in-depth explanation of the differences between prototypes, wireframes, and mockups, see our dedicated guide to wireframing.
Low and high fidelity wireframes in Framer
A wireframe is the floorplan of your app. And like an architect’s blueprints, a low fidelity wireframe ignores surface detail and decoration to focus on overall structure, layout, and function. Get your low fidelity wireframes right, and everything you build on top of them will be stable.
Clearly, then, wireframing is an essential skill that all UI and UX designers need to master.
Tips for producing high fidelity prototypes in Framer
A high fidelity prototype differs from the lo-fi variety primarily in the degree to which it faithfully simulates the end product. Meaning that a high fidelity prototype is usually a more appropriate solution only later in the development process, or when an idea is especially complex. By using Framer you don't necessarily have to wait until a specific point in your process to create hi-fi prototypes, because high fidelity prototypes are just as easy to create as their lo-fi siblings, thanks to free building blocks, examples, and easy-to-use tools.
So while a lo-fi prototype may be fairly basic and restricted in its features and functions, a high fidelity prototype can be a fully functioning version of the final product using the same design skills to create.
Indeed, what makes a prototype a prototype is simply that it is a test run; a one-off, privately produced version of a product that is not intended for public release. Yet the increased fidelity here means that high fidelity prototypes can often look and feel just like the real thing. In fact, high fidelity prototypes in Framer can include audio, video, and other media to appear realer than real.
Of course, it’s unlikely that everything in your prototype will make it to the final product. But that’s exactly the point of prototyping; to find out what works and what doesn’t. And in order to make the most of the prototyping stage, you should be ready to quickly let go of substandard ideas as soon as it becomes clear that they aren’t working. For this reason, rapid prototyping techniques are often highly beneficial, as they can help to avoid developing a psychological attachment to dead-end concepts.
The most useful high fidelity prototypes offer realistic interactions, evolved visual design, and a high degree of functionality – all features that are easy to develop using Framer. They also tend to include real data, rather than dummy copy or other stand-in content. The reason for this is simple; if temporary or provisional content differs significantly from the final content, you may find yourself having to re-do much of this design work again later, wasting a lot of time.
It’s a similar situation when it comes to spec; a well-designed and broadly functional prototype will be a lot more likely to provide developers with accurate spec when it comes to handoff. Again, this can save a lot of time.
For more in-depth information regarding prototypes, be sure to check out our beginner’s guide to prototyping.