A paper and pipe cleaner prototype that is constructed in three dimensions, with hand written text in German and little figures of people, buildings, and a robot.

A prototype. Corinna Schuster (WMDE), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Background reading

This post is an excerpt of a reading reflection on a small collection of papers related to prototypes in HCI. Before jumping in to my reflection, the two seminal papers that inspired this post are:

The main role of a prototype: communication

I’m surprised that these seminal readings didn’t focus on what prototypes do best: communication. Prototypes are powerful because they are a way to demonstrate or explore an idea and also because of their ability to convince, move, influence, inform, and inspire others. The piece on what do prototypes prototype was close to this point, but seemed to miss it. Humans, and our desire to connect and share knowledge and ideas with one another (and ourselves), are why prototypes exist. To prototype is to perform a highly communicative act.

We prototype to convince others (and ourselves) of the viability of an idea. It’s a form of communication and testing at the same time. We prototype to demonstrate particular elements (like feel, role, or integration) that may be hard to do in text or a linguistic description alone. Language, as a tool for communication, doesn’t always help us demonstrate or convince others and it certainly doesn’t provide functional mechanisms and physical experiences in a way that can be used to test things. Language has limits. Prototypes fill these rhetorical gaps, playing a part in the exploration and expansion of ideas between people. They enable ideas to transition into a posteriori forms (often to be iterated into new priors).

Prototypes are a mirror and a window between ideas and experiences

Prototypes, in this way, are reflexive ontologically. They build knowledge through a phenomenological approach: they invite the creator and all other participants to experience the spirit of an idea.

We use prototypes, then, to reflect on an idea, reflect on ourselves, and reflect on the particulars of the artifact. We also use prototypes to facilitate the social evolution of an idea: they can also become like a canvas where multiple painters are invited to participate. Prototypes are like a mirror and a lens at the same time, allowing us to see windows into new worlds and also see pieces of ourselves, our own thoughts, and the interpretations of others more clearly in new ways.

Prototypes are powerful because they demonstrate, but also because they test an idea. And in that sense, prototypes build validity early on often just because the vibes are good. Prototypes are perhaps the most professional example of how vibes really do matter: you can often tell whether an idea has legs or not when a prototype has been sufficiently thorough in demonstrating its idea.

Fidelity is sorely misunderstood in prototyping

And following the idea of “sufficiently thorough” in demonstrating is really the debate on what low versus high means in regards to fidelity. This is a long-standing conversation, apparently. The second reading attempted to structure the advantages and disadvantages of each back in the late 90s and I’d argue that the phrases “low fidelity” and “high fidelity” are still largely misunderstood even today.

Of course, the most important thing to interrogate here isn’t actually low versus high (which most debates fixate on) but rather what the heck is “fidelity”?

Etymologically, “fidelity” is about faith, or faithfulness. We get “infidelity” from the same word, which means to cheat (often in the context of marriage). And I love this about prototypes. We don’t talk about low versus high resolution. Or low versus high quality. We talk about fidelity; and I’d argue that this is the perfect word for what we mean when we talk about prototypes.

So what is faithfulness then? And what is low versus high faithfulness? I think that it becomes simpler to understand when we stop talking about prototypes and begin to talk about what they are meant to represent. And in this sense, this is a rather theological conversation: there is a sort of spirit to what a prototype is pursuing.

Faithfulness then is about being faithful to an idea: having a strong sense of conviction and showing that through the prototype. A “low” fidelity prototype is perhaps only faithful to a small part of an idea (the part that matters most) or is perhaps unsure about the idea itself and is open to change.

In a philosophical sense, there is a platonic order, an essence, that we want to demonstrate with a prototype. Prototypes are relatively non-existential. What I mean by that is that they typically begin with an idea and then are brought into existence to test and demonstrate that idea. With prototypes, essence precedes existence. (I wonder what Sarte and peers would have to say about prototypes?)

What does low versus high fidelity allow us to do?

I was also somewhat disappointed with the “low versus high fidelity” reading because it also seemed to leave out some of the best parts of low fidelity prototypes. If fidelity is about faithfulness to an idea, then low faith is actually a space of liberating exploration. Low faith is about permission and possibility. Low faith is about unknowing, uncertainty, and openness to change. This means that low fidelity prototypes can be easier to collaborate on. If the creator and the prototype aren’t all that faithful to an idea, then the idea and the prototypes can be influenced, shaped, and refined.

Higher fidelity ideas tend to invite critique about specifics. Lower fidelity prototypes tend to invite collaboration on higher-level concepts and intentions. Higher fidelity prototypes aren’t just more expensive, but also packed with more assumptions and opinions about the artifact’s particulars. They become more explanatory than exploratory. Low/high fidelity in this piece seemed to focus on cost and economics between the two, rather than particular qualities and strengths that actually define how low or high fidelity can or should be used.

To me, “low fidelity” isn’t low fidelity because it is cheap and fast. Those are just strongly correlated traits with low fidelity. But instead, a low fidelity prototype is a changeable, malleable, raw idea. It is a piece of soft clay: it isn’t faithful to any forms yet.

Higher fidelity prototypes exchange rawness for refined ideas and captured essence. They begin to demonstrate that they understand their purpose. For that reason, not due to time or material price, higher fidelity prototypes are more expensive. The wrong assumptions can be costly to reform and re-refine into new ideas. To make a higher fidelity prototype is a statement about confidence and belief; the vibes in a particular direction are what we want, so we need to really enhance those strengths. Higher fidelity isn’t just higher resolution, it is a higher state of belief in what the prototype is really a prototype of.

So what?

I suppose some people might be reading this and thinking that it really has nothing to do with their work at all. And that might be so. But I reckon that anyone who builds or creates anything might find that these pieces of my reflection could be useful:

  • Prototypes are powerful because they are a form of communication that can go beyond descriptions, language, and words.
  • Prototypes are about experiences that enable us to reflect on our ideas, ourselves, and what others think of our ideas.
  • Prototype fidelity is more about faithfulness than resolution or quality, which means that prototypes explore uncertainty and can be shaped and molded more easily in their earliest stages.

Special thanks to Ken Holstein and his class, Prototyping Algorithmic Experiences, in the Spring term of 2024.