Why I Stopped Designing in Low Fidelity and Why You Should Probably Do The Same.

Designing in low-fidelity feels like a low-cost way to build product but is detrimental to your overall process velocity.

Look. I know I'm probably going to get yelled at by many people for saying this, but designing in low-fidelity is a waste of time. This take might seem counterintuitive because the opposite of designing in low fidelity is designing in high fidelity, which generally takes longer.

But does it really take longer? Nowadays, any good designer with a decent amount of Figma knowledge, a good eye, and good hand dexterity can throw a high-fidelity mockup relatively quickly. I know this is a loaded statement, so let's not focus on the quality of design outputs or actual velocities, but on what designing at that level of fidelity entails.

When I say high-fidelity, I define it as something that has a well-thought composition and layout, uses proper typography and color, and has a decent amount of attention to detail (fair use of effects and strokes treatments). In simpler terms, high-fidelity designs can be a reference for production work.

Of course, designing in high-fidelity will mean different things depending on the product, the company, the process, and the designer. But for the sake of the argument, let's say that high-fidelity designs are mockups that you design with the idea that they will get implemented the way they are. Low-fidelity designs are those that come in the form of wireframes, sketches, or half-baked mockups.

I'm here to argue that those low-fi designs are a significant waste of your time. Early in my career, I discovered that low-fidelity design often resulted in weak design momentum, pointless discussions with stakeholders, and hours wasted trying to reconcile low-fidelity concepts with new high-fidelity designs.

That's the gist of my take. I think wireframes and napkin sketches are fantastic tools for non-designers. I love getting wireframes from engineers and product managers. They are a lens into how they are thinking about a particular feature. I also sketch a lot to ideate, but I never share those. They are often post-it notes that go to the trash-can after they bring clarity to my thought process.

But when I, as a designer, use wireframes as an artifact to push product direction and get momentum, I always get poor results.

Low-fi advocates will argue that low-fidelity designs help stakeholders understand that you're shopping for thoughts on the behavior of the design and not on its form or shape. But why wasting so much time in subtlety when you can literally ask for the type of feedback you want?

Hey, looking for some feedback on this design. Please don't look too much into the aesthetics and focus on the flow and interactions. We can discuss the low level details later when we are aligned on the general behavior. Any thoughts?

It’s as simple as that.

But if you’re still not convinced, let me tell you about testing low-fi designs with users. It won’t work. End users will almost always take designs literally, so they will fixate on the weak (and sometimes confusing) visual constraints of a wireframe. You will be better off by showing them high-fi designs and collecting any potential feedback on how they perceive aesthetics and form.

That's the thing about designing in low-fidelity. It just adds a lot of baggage that will delay your desired outcomes. Designing in high-fidelity puts you closer to your target. It allows you to imagine behaviors and interactions in the environment in which they are supposed to live.

Your designs are also more powerful because you can leverage color, effects, deliberate layouts and information architectures to build the product narrative that you intend to develop.

You also can design one high-fidelity set and iterate from it until you reach your desired outcome. People understand your vision because your design is a full expression of it, not a poor proxy.

When designing from low-fi, you have to repeat and rebuild so many things. You have to re-evaluate so many decisions, and you will almost always make costly mistakes and introduce an unbearable amount of latency to your process.

This graph explains the issue a little bit more eloquently:

When you design in high-fidelity you're always working on the same ground and using the same rails to your destination. It simplifies the design process by several orders of magnitude.

I know that low-fi design looks on paper like the right way to iterate and build a product. In fact I was taught over and over that designing in low-fi was a more efficient way to build product. Even design managers will suggest it from time to time but mostly because they were concerned about my bandwidth, not because they felt that was the right way to design a product.

Believe me, once I learned how to produce high-fidelity designs faster, I realized how useless it was to design at lesser fidelities.

I like to think of a chef that wants to experiment with a new exotic seasoning and starts testing it on microwave food. That's how low-fi designs feel to me.

You should be testing your exotic seasonings in equally high-quality base ingredients. Anything else puts you further away from your desired flavor.

Quick disclaimers:

  • No, I’m not saying you should stop wireframing or sketching. I still do that. I’m arguing that you should stop using those in your visible process.

  • High-fidelity is a wide spectrum. If you’re designing a very intricate consumer experience you probably want to design at a mid-fidelity and bridge the gap at the end. The idea here is still the same, though. Design as close to the production fidelity as you can get, without sacrificing speed.

  • This is an opinion. Thousands and thousands of succesful designers use low-fidelity in their process and they have successful careers. As I grew in my own design career I stopped seeing the merits of low-fi design but I’m not invalidating its value in a general context. I just think there are smarter ways to work. Would love to hear different opinions.

As awalys, eager to learn your perspectives and own takes. You can reach out and let me know what you think on Twitter @whoisjuan.