Fidelity is an on-going conversation in the area of prototyping. Varying levels of design fidelity elicit different reactions from project stakeholders: clients, research participants, and developers. Sometimes a low-fidelity prototype will allow stakeholders to be more generative and imaginative in their responses. Sometimes it will just confuse them. Sometimes a hi-fidelity prototype will allow stakeholders to accurately understand the design experience, sometimes it will cause them to be especially anxious about a detail like the colour.
Given our awareness of the prototype-fidelity issue, we, as designers, often times make quite strategic choices in determining the fidelity of a particular prototype for a particular step in a particular project. Different levels of prototype fidelity bring our projects different things: generative ideas, validation, the ability to see, play and iterate something that previously was only imagined, a concrete conversation starter for talking and thinking with our teams and stakeholders.
While the impact of prototype fidelity is becoming ever more explored and understood, to the point where I imagine most people have a few rules of thumb, I think there are a few more kinds of fidelity that are going to become especially important to wrestle with.
As background, a few years ago, me and a lot of people I knew, did UX design for software that typically had one environment and social context for use. Usually, it was one person in front of a computer in an office-like setting, even if he or she was doing something like gaming or social networking. The environmental and social aspects of the design could be adequately addressed in a discovery, user-research type step of the design process. The parity worked—end user sits in an office-like setting and uses software, I work in an office-like setting and design their software.
In the past two years, this has all changed. I have been working on projects that focus on convergent devices, multi-channel environments, product ecosystems, and more broadly, experiences for more than one person that occur across time and place. In this work, it is becoming abundantly clear that the environmental and social context of the design need as much exploration and strategic consideration throughout the design process as prototype fidelity. It is no longer safe to keep the context of use in a box called design research, to be opened and closed at the start of a project.
Instead, environmental fidelity, social fidelity, and prototype fidelity need to be employed and manipulated throughout the design process to bring to our projects the generative ideas, validation, ability to see, play and iterate something that previously was only imagined, and the concrete conversation starters that let us talk and think with our teams and stakeholders. So what are the characteristics of these additional types of fidelity?
1. Environmental fidelity
[left: working at AP’s Austin studio | right: some of the world outside of our office—credits at end of post]
- What aspects of the physical space(s) and architecture impact your design?
- How does the environment change over time: time of day, day of week, season of the year?
- Are physical factors such as light, sound, weather, smell, temperature relevant to the experience you are hoping to support?
- What role do artifacts, tools and concepts play in people’s activities related to the design you are creating?
- How are tasks split between people and their environments? For example, do things like a wall map facilitate shared reference for people trying to determine a navigation route together?
2. Social fidelity
[left: focus group duck | right: flock of ducks in action]
- What roles do individuals, households and and larger groups of interest play in relation to the world and your design?
- What role do people’s existing desires, hopes, dreams, disappointments play in your design?
- What social rules govern the interactions of people—both implicit and explicit rules?
- What behaviors do people engage in that they are not able to notice or describe?
3. Intervention | Prototype fidelity
- Artifact based interviews—people doing personal show and tell with their existing products and services
- Mash-ups and re-arrangements—using existing products and services to combining and orchestrating in new ways
- Experience analogs—unrelated products and services that address an otherwise inaccessible aspect of the design goals
- Prototypes—a range of new designs of varying fidelity that seek to deliver on the design goals
Similar to how prototype fidelity can be dialed up or down to give the project the direction it needs to move forward, social and environmental fidelity can also be used strategically.
For example, at one stage in a project for a new mobile service, it might benefit the project to focus primarily on the role of the environment on the design.
- Social fidelity [low]: low focus on friends, family, mobile calls
- Environmental fidelity [high]: spend the day with a research participant, going where ever they usually go, or follow the typical route without participant
- Prototype | Intervention fidelity [low]: mobile device with a screen that is a stack of post-it notes, interfaces flipped or drawn at appropriate times.
Spending a day in the field doing this sort of design work can illuminate environmental factors that can only be imagined from the office.
In the end, every project is going to have different needs as to how rigorously the social and environmental context should be considered and experienced during the design process. The exciting reality is that our design are not only impacted by the social and environmental context, but also serve to inform and create the social and environmental contexts of the future. Longitudinally, the iteration between the world and our designs already exists, the opportunity is to make it an explicit part of the design process.
Photo credits for Environmental Fidelity image: