Why fidelity matters: good with users and bad with clients

Sketch of a girl on a swing

Figure 1: A sketch of a girl on a swing.

This articles builds on a presentation Darius and I gave to the Bristol Usability Group on Wednesday 29th February 2012 titled ‘Why fidelity matters: good with users, bad with clients’.  The aim of this article is to share our design thinking and practices around the concept of fidelity.  We believe that fidelity represents so much more than wireframing!

Typically, when fidelity gets mentioned in a user experience (UX) context we often hear it paired with the word wireframe.  Fidelity is more commonly known in its abbreviated form either as low-fi or high-fi.  Yet, we feel fidelity has so much more to offer.  We can use it as a tool to design meaning.

This article will explore the idea of using fidelity to build a common understanding – a shared meaning.  In the first section Simon explores why we need to create meaning.  In the the second part Darius examines the typical client-agency relationship, specifically looking at how fidelity can be used to build better relationships that in turn generate better and more meaningful user experiences.

Fidelity is personal

What is the right level of fidelity? Well, that depends on the person.  Different people may require totally different levels of fidelity to generate the necessary understanding for a design to become meaningful.  This idea is one that becomes especially important when we are discussing the design of a website or application from the ground-up.  Therefore, ascertaining the right level of fidelity to present, to achieve a shared understanding is critical.

Whilst low-fi wireframes may work for a technically savvy and skilled web developer they may fall short of conveying the necessary meaning to another, less skilled, but equally as passionate and committed person.

We have to work out what is meaningful and therefore the right level of fidelity for every client.  This is a positive act because it forces us to treat every situation and every client uniquely and with respect, which is what they deserve anyway.

Embracing the client

Too much focus still seems to be placed on the experience for the customer.  Now this may sound unusual but as UX practitioners we have become very accomplished at polishing the experience for the end-user.  Yet, we can easily neglect the importance of the relationship between the agency and the client.

How much importance do we place on the shared meaning we generate between the agency and the client during a project?  All too often it will fall short in comparison to the importance placed on the relationship between the client and their audience.  We often tend to focus too much of our energy and resource on the end-user when we need to focus equally as much on the client.  This leads to a relationship that is unbalanced because too much emphasis is placed in one area and not enough in the other.

The effects of this imbalance all too often result in all or some of the following:

  • Clients agreeing when they don’t really understand because any action seems better than no action;
  • Clients feeling uncertain and decision-making slowing down or important decisions not being made or worse, avoided;
  • Clients starting to feel out of control and becoming frustrated leading to the erosion of trust with the relationship.

Why is meaning important?

People need to generate meaning (this includes clients).  It is a fundamental part of being human and we cannot stop looking for it in everything we do.  Therefore, everything matters to us – meaning is that important!

The Orion Nebula

Figure 2: The constellation of Orion from the amazing Astrological Picture of the Day (APOD) website.

The image of the constellation of Orion is an amazing cosmological vista and one that as we look at more closely and consider more deeply, conjures up all sorts of thoughts and question about what it means.  On the surface we can see all the stars, dust and colour but as we look more closely we naturally start to question its deeper significance.  We cannot stop ourselves from questioning its meaning – it represents so much more to us than a pretty picture.

Whilst the image is aesthetically beautiful it is also mysterious.  The area shown in the image spans 75 light years.  To put the scale into perspective the enclosed planets of our solar system span about half a light day!  So, the constellation of Orion is big. Therefore, it’s the very beauty and the scale of it which motivates us to consider its meaning that extends beyond just its beauty or scale – we are compelled to question what it means to us.

Personally, such images never make me feel small or insignificant but connected fundamentally to something bigger.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about God.  I’m talking about our ‘theory of mind’.  Our ability to question our place in the world and assign meaning.

The birth of Venus by Botticelli

Figure 3: The Birth of Venus by Botticelli a renaissance master piece.

The Birth of Venus is over 500 years old and is held in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

On the surface it reveals a beautiful Renaissance painting but it has deeper meaning that is also open to interpretation.  What does the picture mean?  This is not a simple question to answer because there is no single text that conveys the precise menaing of the painting.

What Botticelli intended to convey when he painted it and what it means now may be subtly different.  In the last 500 years we have changed significantly in many subtle ways, especially with a greater focus on science rather than religion providing our knowledge.  The knowledge 500 years ago about the cosmos would have been very different to what we know today.

However, the religious connotations of the painting with Venus emerging as a whole and perfect women ushered into the world by angels may now represent a different meaning to the one originally conveyed.  This is a picture about creation and perfection and how they are inextricably linked together, or that is my interpretation 500+ years after it was painted.

Obviously, we know what the painting conveys is not possible because that is not what actually happens because we all start our lives as babies.  The meaning Botticelli wanted to convey is one of perfection and therefore outside of our normal experience: only God can create because the rest of us are merely born.  Therefore, we can say that the picture has meaning both at a surface level (its composition) and a deeper level (its representation).

The relationship between thinking and feeling

Necker  cube

Figure 4: The Necker Cube.

When we observe the Necker cube, after a little while we see it transform.  It changes from one perspective to another.  It’s a great optical illusion demonstrating bi-stability.  When this happens it becomes something more than our observations because we also feel something when it changes.

This illustrates the relationship that exists between the things we think and the things we feel – one affects the other and vice verse.  We are not just processing life, we are feeling it.  This also supports the importance of designing meaningful experiences because it is not just what we think that matters but what we feel as well.

AUTOPOIESIS

Meaning allows us to turn complexity on its head.  In figure 5 below do you see 8 dots or a line?

This is the power of the law of Good Continuation. We naturally group similar objects together and we do it instinctively and without much thinking.  It just happens.

This process is called ‘autopoiesis’ – the generation of an organising pattern.  In the case of figure 5 it is not just 8 dots but a line of dots and this is something the Gestalt psychology movement understood that was fundamentally important because it affects our perception and representation of reality.

Meaning works in a very similar way – it just emerges.  Meaning is more than the sum of the parts.

Line of dots

Figure 5: The Gestalt Law of Good Continuation in action.

The relationship between thinking and feeling

Meaning can be broken into surface and deeper components. As with an iceberg (see figure 6 below), what is observed above the water line may be but a fraction of the actual iceberg because we know there is a much bigger bit sitting below the water line.  The same holds true for meaning.

At the surface level meaning is more cognitive than emotional.  At the deeper level the reverse happens and meaning is more emotional than cognitive.  Obviously, the surface and deeper layers overlap and we should not think of them as discrete but as a continuum where they affect each other because of the natural interaction that exists.

I believe there are natural interactions that happen between what we think (surface) and what we feel (deeper).  The surface and deeper meaning elements interact with each other and therefore affect each other.  Understanding cognitive and emotion science is key to understanding the interaction between thinking and feeling and applying these principles so we can design better and more meaningful experiences.  This is how we can engage people more holistically – not just cognitively!

Iceberg model of meaning showing the relationship between the surface and deeper meaning.

Figure 6: Iceberg model of meaning.

We have to be able to understand and design what is meaningful at the surface level if we are to evoke the deeper meaning which typically brings about flow and a sense of engagement.

This has changed the way I think about UX.

A meaning-first approach starts with understanding what will be meaningful.  We think of this approach not as a user-centred design process but a meaning-centred design (MCD) process.

Meaning-Centred Design

Without meaning in our lives, life would be pretty meaningless. The same holds true for experience design – poor experiences can be pretty meaningless.

If we are to design authentic and engaging experiences we have to ascertain what is meaningful.  This requirements extends beyond defining meaning just for the users but must also include  the client as well.  Meaning affects and touches everyone.  This means users, clients and designers… All of us!

Taking a ‘meaning-centred design’ (MCD) approach requires looking out beyond the horizon of the traditional research and design methodology we can all too often get quickly locked into.  It requires a lot of patience and a little bit of courage.

Every one of us is seeking meaning so let’s seek it together.  I love this quote by Sir Henry Royce:

Strive for perfection in everything we do. Take the best that exists and make it better. When it does not exist, design it.

Good with users, bad with clients

Model of relationship between agency, client and end-user

Figure 7 The relationship between the Agency (A), the Client (C) and the End-User (U).

The topic of talk that precedes this article is ‘good with users bad with clients’.  Let’s explain what we mean by that. Why we think it applies to the digital industry in general (and experience designers in particular) and what we might all be able to do about it.

As previously mentioned this is not a fully thought-through philosophy, it’s more a collection of ideas that represents a work-in-progress. We wanted to put it out there because we think there’s a worthwhile debate to be had amongst the experience design community.

At the heart of the issue is where our focus as Experience Designers tends to be: on the conversation that happens between our client and their customer. We’re very focused on making that optimal, we perceive that as the fruit of our labours. The problem is that in doing so we often ignore the importance of the conversation that goes on between our client and ourselves.

The thing is that it’s the conversation between client and agency that is the platform for creating a great end-user experience. All the research, all the insight, all the design thinking and doing is wasted if your client doesn’t FEEL what you’re expecting their users will FEEL.

Figure 8 below shows the relationship been Agency (A), Client (C) and User (U).  As a community we tend to concentrate most of our energies on the conversation between our customer and their end-user while ignoring (or giving less value to) the conversation between our customer and ourselves.

In practice that means that the conversation between ourselves and our customers is likely to be compromised.  It’s probably not a terrible compromise. But it’s not transformative, and certainly not peak. Not what we are aiming to achieve as practitioners.

Diagram of the relationship between the agency, client and user.

Figure 8: Show the relationship between the two models with the lower model showing that typically and ‘either-or’ approach is taken in contrast to what is needed to actually deliver meaning across the whole relationship.

Equal focus on the dialogue between A and C as well as between C and U is what we should strive for.  Focusing on one without the other often leaves the end-user feeling a little bit ‘meh’! And that is definitely not what we’re aiming for…

FIDELITY

The other thing we talk about in the title is Fidelity. What do we mean by that?

Well, first I want to try and draw a distinction between information and meaning. By ‘high fidelity’ I don’t just mean something that has a lot of information in it, I mean something that’s meaningful to the audience.

Let’s elaborate using an example.  Imagine you’re hearing a piece of music.  It’s coming through the wall from next door and is very muffled. You get a basic idea of the rhythm and the general cadence of the music but it’s not something you could hum. It doesn’t mean that much.

Listen to the clip below.  Can you work out the song?

thru_wall

Now listen to it again. Imagine you’re walking past a building site and it’s playing on the radio.

Listening to the clip again.  Can you work out the song now?

radio

It’s not very high quality but there’s a massive difference in meaning. There’s enough fidelity in the music for you to decide whether you like it. You might start whistling the tune, remember some of the words. You could say that this is the minimum level of fidelity you need for it to become meaningful to you.

Now listen to it again at MP3 quality.

cd

There’s a lot more audio information. This is the minimum fidelity copy you want to own, where you can hear everything clearly, it’s good to listen to, you can have it on loud and enjoy it. It becomes part of your music collection. Part of the texture of your life.

Now imagine if I had a hi-fi audio system here I could play it to you at CD quality. There’s a lot more audio information again but unless you’re a hi-fi nut it’s probably not going to be that much more meaningful for you. You could say you’ve passed the point where you’ve made the maximum leap in terms of fidelity vs. meaning. In fact, today the vast majority of us are happy at the MP3 level of fidelity.

Table showing how higher levels of fidelity equals more meaning

Figure 9: Revealing the ‘meaning space’ as a graph with fidelity represented on the X axis and meaning represented on the Y axis.

So for any kind of information there’s a sort of ‘meaning space’. Let’s say this is our piece of music. Below a certain point there’s not enough fidelity for you to really get it, to feel it.  Above this point is where you start to feel it. There’s another jump in quality where the music becomes more meaningful to you. And there’s a point beyond which any additional fidelity is adding very little in terms of improving the experience.

Imagine this is a piece of work you’re delivering – it might be a user journey, or an interface concept, or an interaction design, or a campaign concept or a piece of copy – whatever, the same thing applies.

Low vs. High Fidelity

LOW HIGH
Fast Time consuming
Fail safely Fail hard
Encourages collaboration Rewards singular vision
Not very meaningful Very meaningful
  1. What’s the best start point?
  2. At what points do we get a spike in meaning?
  3. Where’s the point at which we start to get diminishing returns?
  4. Where should we stop?
Design sketch of Barnardo's donation journey

Figure 10: Shows the level of fidelity that all the stakeholders agreed about and was translated in design and in turn led to a fantastic improvement in donation performance.

This piece of work for Barnardo’s was done in a particular setting. We had all the key decision makers on the project in a room together. It was a fast turnaround project with a singular purpose – increase donations during Christmas.

So here the optimum start point was to draw quickly on a large sheet of paper. It was fast, easy to iterate, it didn’t matter if we screwed up and most importantly it allowed everyone to collaborate – they could just grab a marker and get stuck in.

Nicole Farhi lo-fi

Figure 11: Nicole Farhi required a much greater minimum level of fidelity at the start of the design process.

For international fashion designer Nicole Farhi, figure 11 shows the minimum level of fidelity that would be acceptable, anything less (e.g. wireframes) would be meaningless.  It is our responsibility to work out what is meaningful for each client and not just use the same methods for everyone because taste, appreciation and expectations are individual.

So what are the rules?

We’re obsessed with rules for productivity and effectiveness but rules are for beginners. The best craftspeople act on instinct.  They feel their way through any design challenges to deliver a ‘meaningful’ experience.

Look through the images below (figures 12, 13 and then look at the video in figure 14) to get a sense of how the meaning increases by using greater and greater level of fidelity.

Figures 12 and 13 below we can see a sketch and a picture of a girl on a swing, respectively.  Both images have meaning and we could argue that image 13 is more meaningful than image 12.  However, look at the images and then compare it with the video shown in figure 14 – what happens?

Sketch of a girl on a swing

Figure 12: Sketch of a girl on a swing – how meaningful is it?

 

Image of girl on a swing

Figure 13: Picture of a girl on a swing – how meaningful is it?

swing video 2

The video of the girl actually swinging in slow motion has the greatest meaning. We can observe that she is experiencing joy and we can see that and fully appreciate it. The meaning conveyed has a much greater level of fidelity.  We understand it better, and we can fundamentally empathise with her and therefore we are affected more deeply.

If we imagine meaning as a continuum of significance’ we should always be aiming to increase the meaning we can experience and feel and this should include both ‘the client’ and the ‘end-users’.

Meaning-first

Imagine what we could achieve as designers if we took a ‘meaning first’ approach for all UX projects.  Just imagine a situation where clients, their audiences and customers, as well as us, the designers were signing from the same song sheet.

We appreciate this is a noble idea but it is one we feel has massive potential.  Finally, as designers we are meant to be agents of change.  We feel that this would be a significant and bold change for the better if we focused on designing interaction experiences that felt meaningful.

We’d love to hear your feedback – as we said earlier at the beginning of the article and during the presentation this an approach we are applying and we would love to hear your thoughts about it.

Simon & Darius August ’12

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About the Author

Nomensa Founder & CEO. After 17 years of dedication to user-experience design (UXD) Simon has been around the block a few times! Simon's passions are creativity and innovation. Simon believes that digital technology should not feel like completing the Rubik's Cube - that represents a big bad fail! Great experiences should feel engaging, intuitive and easy. Simon also believes that great interaction experiences are designed from a top-down approach and focus on uncovering what is meaningful.

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