The 3 Rules of Prototype Fidelity

I gave a presentation with a colleague at last year’s Web 2.0 Expo in New York on Prototype Fidelity. The first of two main points of our presentation was The 3 Rules of Prototype Fidelity. These are rules I came up with to help you find a good level of fidelity to use when creating a prototype. The second main point of our presentation, which I’ll go into in a later post, was to show different types of fidelity, or “Facets of Fidelity” if you want a nice buzzterm.

The 3 Rules of Prototype Fidelity in their most basic form are

  1. Make it
  2. Leave things out
  3. Throw it away

Now there’s a little more to these rules, but that sums up the basic points. Let’s go into a little more detail.

1. Make it
By itself, this nicely addresses the far and away most common problem with prototypes–we don’t get around to making them nearly as often as we should. But there’s a little more too it. “Make it” just means having some fidelity–anything at all. But as with most design or other activities, it helps to have a purpose, so we clarify rule #1 as “Make it for a particular purpose.”

This purpose could be any number of things. Communicating a design to team members, a client, or some other stakeholder. Showing off a product to a potential investor. Testing the design for usability or even for technical feasibility. Or sometimes just to help you work out and get a better grasp on an idea in your head.

Whatever your purpose, create a prototype that has that in mind, because the type of prototype you’re creating will (or at least should) vary greatly in the brief scenarios just listed. For more on just how they’ll differ, let’s look at rule #2.

2. Leave things out
In my rather vague not-quite-a-definition of a prototype, I described it as something that wasn’t quite what you would launch out in to the world. So at it’s very basic, rule #2 simply means to not have full fidelity–that would just be your actual product, service, or whatever you’re making. But I’m not just talking about leaving out some arbitrary piece of the puzzle. Instead, we’re going to go back to that “purpose” word.

Our clarified version of rule #2 is to “Leave things out that distract from your purpose.” A classic example of why this is beneficial is when you’re presenting a prototype to a client because you want to get feedback on some particular aspect of it, say the way you’ve organized some information to allow the user to find and interact with it. During the client review, the client just fixates on the colors you’re using and how they really like rounded corners with a little bit of a gradient to them because blah, blah, blah.

There are ways to attempt to handle that type of situation, and ways to deal with a similar situation when you leave colors out completely but the client insists on talking about color, but I’ll address those more in my later post on facets of fidelity. The key here is to stick to what you need to address your purpose, and to not only avoid putting in possible distractions, but to avoid putting in the additional effort when things change based on the results of whatever you do with your prototype.

I’ll elaborate on this rule in a later post on facets of fidelity as I talk about various types of fidelity and what some of the effects are of having low or high level of fidelity in each of these various areas.

3. Throw it away
This admittedly is a bit harsh. I actually don’t throw away prototypes. At the very least, they’re useful to refer back to when you’re doing similar work in the future, or in case you end up doing a presentation on prototypes and need a bunch of examples to bring your points to life. And in some cases, in particular if you’re following an agile methodology where you can change and refactor the prototype extensively, your prototype elements may directly become part of what you launch out in to the world. These are all valid reasons for not throwing away prototypes. So let’s jump right to the clarified version of this rule: “Be prepared to throw it away once it’s served your purpose.”

The key here is being prepared to throw it away. If you’ve created a prototype to serve a particular purpose, and it’s served that purpose, (usually that you and/or others learned something from it,) that should have been sufficient reason to have created the prototype. To put it another way, if worse came to worse, and your prototype were to vanish into thin air, it still would have been worth having done it.

So what’s the practical takeaway of this? Don’t put more effort into the prototype than you need to to accomplish your purpose. Sometimes more is just a waste of effort. Sometimes more distracts from your purpose. And sometimes less is even more effective in getting others involved, especially if your purpose involves getting feedback on the prototype. Many studies have shown that the less polished and finished a prototype looks, the more willing people are to jump in and mark it up with their thoughts. This is especially true with paper prototypes, where a nice, squiggly, hand-drawn prototype invites people to draw right on the paper…it’s obviously not finished and the informality of the prototype encourages participation.

The three refined rules are

  1. Make it for a particular purpose
  2. Leave things out that distract from your purpose
  3. Be prepared to throw it away once it’s served your purpose

These are admittedly quite general, but remembering these rules the next time you make or are considering making a prototype, should be useful in identifying a good level of effort to undertake.

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