There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into building a house. You have to draw up designs and make all kinds of calculations to ensure the integrity of the structure you want to build before laying down a single brick.
The same is true for software design. Building the interface for an application or a website requires careful planning to give you a clear idea of the task at hand and the relations between all of its components.
This is where low fidelity and high fidelity wireframes come in. They give you a visual image or design of the intended project from the flow to layout, architecture, behaviors, functionality, and page structure.
But what’s the difference between low fidelity and high fidelity wireframes? Is one better than the other for your design process? In what areas do either of them shine best?
Let’s find out.
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A low fidelity wireframe represents the initial visual rendition of a designer’s idea. It’s usually static and typically includes basic content and visuals so that designers and clients can get a simple and clear picture of the design and its core functionalities.
Low fidelity wireframes only show basic, skeletal information about the interface. It can be mapped out on power by way of sketches and drawings or created using a wireframing tool or publishing software.
The point of low fidelity wireframes is to help products/design teams and other stakeholders test, visualize, experiment, and finalize design ideas, assumptions, concepts, and requirements without spending too much time or money on the creative process.
High fidelity wireframes offer a more comprehensive view of a design project. They are usually interactive, which means viewers click on the interface and it will respond to their actions.
It helps teams and stakeholders to visualize and understand the flow of information to communicate design decisions and authenticate complex interactions. With high fidelity wireframes, you will be able to show in detail what the final product will feel and look like upon completion.
Rather than mapping out basic architectural information about the design, high fidelity wireframes use featured quotes, screens, links, fonts, animations, color, layouts, pictures, and more to give a full picture of the end design before it is shipped off to the development team.
Since low fidelity wireframes are not very detailed, they can help you and your clients direct your attention to the core functionalities and user experience of the product being designed.
You can scrutinize your assumptions early on and get on the same page about things like spacing and density, the message the design needs to communicate, as well as what needs or doesn’t need to be on a screen before sinking resources into it.
On the other hand, high fidelity wireframes give a complete picture of the project, but all its bells and whistles can distract clients from focusing on the things that matter.
It also makes it harder to implement suggestions because you might end up having to redo the entire framework from scratch to make it align with the agreed-upon changes.
Low fidelity wireframes make more sense at the beginning of the design process because it allows you and other stakeholders to maintain objectivity when analyzing and tweaking them, saving yourselves time and money down the road.
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A great deal of time and effort goes into creating a hi-fi prototype, so it’s easy for designers and stakeholders to become very invested in a specific approach.
As a result, they will be less inclined to pivot to a new design or even make changes to the asset without feeling like they would be throwing all that time and effort down the drain.
High fidelity wireframes can also push stakeholders to want to deploy faster than normal, taking away time that could have been spent on UX findings or necessary revisions to improve the outcome of the project.
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It’s less stressful and difficult to experiment and explore alternative possibilities before too many resources have been poured into a particular design. This is where low fidelity wireframes shine.
Since creating them is a simple matter, they are very easy to modify or even abandon in favor of new ideas. Anyone involved in the iteration process can draw up their own variation of the wireframe or offer useful feedback to help make the user experience as optimal as possible.
With low fidelity wireframes, iteration is a completely painless activity, whereas it can be cumbersome and downright demoralizing when working with hi-fi wireframes.
One of the main advantages of low fidelity wireframes is that it helps you work quickly and move your projects along faster.
This makes them ideal for those moments when you want to express an idea you got before you forget it or receive feedback and implement changes almost immediately.
Also, pretty much anyone can sketch out a lo-fi wireframe. It doesn’t require any special design skills or abilities to produce one, thereby encouraging higher levels of collaboration during the ideation process.
It’s only natural that a wireframe that feels, looks, and behaves like a real product takes more time to create than the one where you only design a skeletal framework.
High fidelity wireframes can take any time from days to months to finalize and will likely require the skills of a professional designer to pull off.
If you’re on a tight budget or schedule, high fidelity wireframes may not be the best simulation option for you, especially at the early stage of a project because they’re expensive and time-consuming to develop.
On the aesthetics front, there may be little or no difference between a hi-fi simulation and the product that will eventually be developed and shipped to the end users.
So stakeholders and testers are essentially getting a precise depiction of the product’s looks and functions.
Since high-fidelity wireframes can be made to do pretty much anything the final product can do, they are fully functional, interactive, and realistic.
With low-fi wireframes, you’re not promised anything flashy, just enough form and content to convey the flow, layout, and features of a product.
All unnecessary distractions have been stripped away so you prioritize the architecture of your design before worrying about aesthetics.
Although lo-fi prototypes can be made to be interactive, there are still some interactions, animations, transitions, and other elements that are difficult to reflect in a low-fi model.
If you want people to be able to see everything your app or website is capable of, you will be better off using a high-fidelity wireframe to render your design.
However, low-fidelity wireframes offer enough functionality to make them ideal for internal and early-stage experimentation, testing, and creative thinking.
Having to backtrack now and again or change directions after investing all your energy in a particular approach can bring down everyone’s spirit.
Using a lo-fi wireframe can help your team avoid this by enabling you to think through and agree on issues relating to layout, content, and other requirements before you create a full-bodied digital prototype.
With hi-fi wireframes, you’re creating a pixel-perfect prototype that’s ready for development. And while this can be very inspiring and pleasing to look at, it can make analyzing the project, offering new approaches, and incorporating changes into the design a very unpleasant affair.
By first determining the scope of a project and building upon well-reasoned decisions about its information architecture with low fidelity wireframes, design teams can secure early support from stakeholders.
It can also save them from the agony of having to deal with mismatched expectations or rework sophisticated prototypes in the future, which is far more likely when you start out with a hi-fi wireframe.
Seeing design ideas and decisions portrayed in complete detail and exciting colors can be refreshing and inspiring.
It can give clients, investors, and stakeholders a stronger understanding of the product and the features or value that make it appealing, making it easier for them to buy into the vision.
Unlike hi-fi wireframes, lo-fi ones aren’t usually aesthetically pleasing. Their unrefined appearance can make them appear less impressive than their hi-fi counterparts.
Because of their diminished visual impact, using low fidelity assets for some types of client/team presentations or investor pitches may be ideal, especially when dealing with stakeholders who don’t have a lot of design knowledge or experience.
If your goal is to communicate how your finished product will look and feel, then a low-fi wireframe might not be suitable. You’ll be better off using high-fi wireframes to create the “wow” factor and get people excited about the product’s end design.
While you can use a lo-fi wireframe to produce an unpolished outline of the intended product design and even add interactions to make the prototype clickable, it can only go so far. If all you’re doing is internal experimentation, it’s equal to the task.
But as soon as you try to use a low-fi model for public user testing, you will quickly find that it leaves much to be desired. This is because low fidelity wireframes don’t have a full range of visual cues like text, shape, spacing, and color, so navigating the interface can be slow and unrewarding.
If you have the resources and want to perform unmoderated user testing on your product design, high fidelity wireframes are the way to go.
They can help you accurately access the prototype, test specific UI/UX elements, and collect valuable data about response times and user interactions while minimizing human errors.
High fidelity wireframes do a much better job at accurately testing the usability of a product than low fidelity prototypes because they are fully interactive.
High fidelity wireframes show others how the structures you’ve designed will function, what they can do on various pages, and the value of those interactions. It isn’t so much for capturing or clarifying ideas as it is for depicting and detailing the specific features of a designed interface.
It comes in handy when explaining to stakeholders what the different types of features in a project mean and can do.
Low fidelity wireframes are useful for bringing design concepts and ideas to life so people can deliberate on them, offer suggestions, and explore other possibilities they would like to see in the design.
It captures your UI/UX design idea and renders it on page so your clients or colleagues visualize it and agree on the foundational structure and elements without being carried away by aesthetics and visual appeal.
If your goal is to give clients a bare-bones, unbiased view of what the interface you’re designing could like and a chance to offer their input at the beginning of the project when it can easily be implemented, low fidelity wireframes are your guy.
You don’t need fancy equipment to create low fidelity wireframes. They can easily be drawn with pen and paper or a simple wireframing tool.
You can come up with better ideas for the interface, pinpoint mistakes, identify missing content, and quickly make changes to the wireframe without spending a lot more time and money on formatting.
In terms of cost and consumption of resources, high fidelity wireframes are more expensive because they require you to use advanced software to create the extensive detailing for your project.
They also require a lot of skill, the involvement of multiple professionals such as graphic artists, UX designers, and copywriters. And it can take days or even weeks to complete.
A lo-fi wireframe is cheaper, more cost-effective, and less time-consuming than a hi-fi one. This means you can easily test multiple iterations and variations of a product without at low cost, while significantly reducing the amount of time spent between planning and development.
- Both allow you to showcase various aspects of the product of the project being designed so you can better understand the structure and flow of information
- Both help to clarify the features of the UI/UX interface, but with varying degrees of detail
- With both wireframes, you can take an abstract design or product idea from concept to creation
- Both allow you to visualize a specific approach, examine its merits and demerits, and collect feedback on how to improve it
- Low fidelity wireframes are mainly used in the early stage of the design process, while high fidelity wireframes get more use towards the end phase when you’re ready to begin testing the functionality of the prototype
- High fidelity wireframes take more time, effort, and skill to create compared to low-fi wireframes that are quick and easy and can be made by anyone irrespective of their design background
- Low fidelity wireframes have lower aesthetic appeal and limited interactivity than high fidelity wireframes
- Modifications and iterations are much easier with low fidelity wireframes than when you’re working with high-fi simulations
- Hi-fi wireframes are far more conducive for user testing of a product design while lo-fi wireframes are better suited to internal testing of an idea
- You can easily make design changes to any part of the wireframe between test sessions
- It takes less time, effort, skill, and expenses to produce
- Designers and stakeholders have a lesser attachment to low fidelity wireframes so they can easily be modified or discarded in favor of better ideas
- They prioritize function over aesthetics and establish consensus before beginning the costly development process
- Low fidelity simulations don’t offer accurate, error-free results during testing because of their limited functionality and interactivity
- They can make it harder for stakeholders to visualize the end product
- The lack of color, animations, interactions, and transitions can make low-fi wireframes feel boring and uninspiring
- High fidelity wireframes have greater and faster levels of interactivity during user testing
- The refined and polished look helps to provide a better understanding of how the UI will look and function
- Hire fidelity wireframes often look like the real deal—the end product—to users and testers
- Using hi-fi simulations, you analyze workflow, graphical elements like page hierarchy, image quality, and type legibility, as well as specific UI elements such as accordions and mega menus and get accurate results and meaningful feedback
- They are more time and resource consuming than low fidelity wireframes.
- Implementing changes or starting afresh on a high fidelity wireframe can be a great waste of time, money, and effort.
- Designers can get lost in the pursuit of aesthetic perfection and end up sacrificing functionality for form or causing unnecessary delays.
- Their polished nature can discourage feedback
Using the wrong fidelity for your wireframes can cause you a lot of trouble down the road. Neither low or high fidelity prototypes are one-size-fits-all, you need to consider your specific situation before arriving at the option that’s a better fit.
If you’re working with a limited budget, or the project requires flexibility and speed, low fidelity wireframes may be the right solution, especially at the beginning stages of the design process.
But if money and time are no problem or you want to make an impression or gather data on various aspects of the interface, then high fidelity wireframes may be more suited to your needs.
You can even combine them in your design process, using low fidelity wireframing at the early phase and high fidelity prototyping at the end or later stages.
Tom loves to write on technology, e-commerce & internet marketing. I started my first e-commerce company in college, designing and selling t-shirts for my campus bar crawl using print-on-demand. Having successfully established multiple 6 & 7-figure e-commerce businesses (in women’s fashion and hiking gear), I think I can share a tip or 2 to help you succeed.