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Customer Experience and Design

UX Testing: Low- or High-Fidelity Mockups?

When it comes to music, most of us have an idea about low and high fidelity. Low fidelity is the radio in your grandfather’s station wagon. You get the idea of the sound, and in the ‘70s, that’s about all you had to work with. High fidelity is the car next to you at the stoplight with its trunk rattling and your windows shaking. You get to hear every nuance of the song, no matter how far you are away.
In the land of user experience (UX), we too have the concept of low and high fidelity mockups – also known as comprehensives, or comps. Let’s start at the beginning. When conducting usability testing, your results have a lot to do with your first decisions. There are many decisions you need to take into account when planning usability testing. Here are a few of the options:

  • Moderated
  • Unmoderated
  • Remote
  • Task-driven exclusively
  • Task and evaluation
  • Products already in production
  • Low- or high-fidelity comps (mockups)

I have already discussed some of these options in other posts. Today, let’s focus on low- and high-fidelity mockups.

What is a low-fidelity mockup?

Typically, a low-fidelity prototype or mockup is more focused on structure. People joke about how many great ideas have been drawn on a cocktail napkin in a moment of inspiration. Although it might not be very likely, you could test an idea on a cocktail napkin. That would be the low of the low-fidelity scale. If you are working with a professional information architect, it most likely would be a low-fidelity wireframe. A wireframe, more often than not, is a black and white drawing showing what would be on a screen. Think of the stick drawings that you did as a kid. Sometimes a low-fidelity wireframe can include functionality like hover states, drop-down menus, swipe gestures, or links to other pages, but it doesn’t have to.

When should you perform low-fidelity testing?

Low-fidelity testing is usually performed earlier rather than later in the development lifecycle. These tests are used to get quick feedback on rough ideas without consuming a lot of your UX team resources. They can be used to flesh out many things such as page hierarchy, navigation placement or labels, even confirming the purpose of a page. They can help you gather answers to questions like:

  • Tell me what you think you can do on this screen?
  • What do you think is the main purpose of this screen?
  • What would you expect to find if you were to click on each of the navigation buttons?
  • Where would you click to [example, sign-in]?

Another benefit of low-fidelity testing is that users don’t focus on colors and images.

What is a high-fidelity mockup?

A high-fidelity prototype usually has a “finished” visual look. It takes everything from the low-fidelity comp and applies the expected visual styling of the end product. It may even be interactive to the point of enabling users to accomplish various tasks by clicking on text links or menu items.

When should you perform high-fidelity testing?

As you might guess, high-fidelity testing is typically performed as the next step after low fidelity. From high-fidelity testing, you can gauge the effectiveness of your design by measuring:

  • Successful task completion
  • Visual affordance of the page functionality, meaning that things look like what they do
  • Whether the visual styling is creating any problems for users
  • Emotional responses, or how users feel about the screen

A high-fidelity comp can also be given to developers to help them see what the fully developed page should look like. A high-fidelity comp is typically your last chance to “get it right” before developers begin coding.
For both low- and high-fidelity prototypes, the goal is to refine what you want to design before development. Stakeholders and product owners also benefit from both low and high fidelity. Stakeholders and product owners can be involved in the design process and refine a product that is guided by direct user involvement. Both types of testing greatly increase the confidence that stakeholders and product owners can have in moving forward into development with a product that reflects the needs of users.

So, what should you test? Low- or high-fidelity comps?

The safest approach is both. Give yourself as many opportunities as possible to learn from and adjust your course through the design and development stages. Both of these processes work equally well in an Agile environment, where the goal is to “build, test, and adjust” to take advantage of maximum efficiency.
Think of low- and high-fidelity testing like adjusting the water in your shower. First, you test the temperature of the water with your hand (low fidelity), and you make adjustments based on that. Then you venture in with more of your body (high fidelity). Once you’re sure of what you’re getting yourself into, you are ready to commit everything. So test, test, test until the water’s fine.

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