July 10, 2018

High Fidelity Consulting

Ideas without details and details without ideas are both risky

This little book Legible Practices from Helsinki Design Lab continues to deliver gems of wisdom:

Ideas without details and details without ideas are both risky, so IDEO relied on high-resolution provocations that combined both.


There’s a rich vein of wisdom tightly bound around that phrase. And something I’ve been appreciating more and more in my own work.

Recommendations are worthless.

“You should….”

“We could…”

“Make it better…”

“Improve the UX…”

These are empty, weak, non-useful concepts that wither on the vine of dusty powerpoint slides. Crucially, these half formed hypothetical suggestions are often too vague or generic to properly critique.

Instead, I’ve been trying to force myself to prototype every recommendation I make to clients. Some real examples from the past few months of my own consulting work:

Recommending that the client builds a dashboard? Here’s a proof of concept in Google datastudio.

Recommending that they redesign their product pages? Here’s a simple mock-up of a new product page.

Recommending they improve their content brief for writers? Here’s 3 new example briefs.

Recommending infinite scroll on a category page? Here’s a javascript bookmarklet that you can use to see it in action on your site

“Ideas without details and details without ideas are equally risky” - I’ve been calling this high fidelity consulting. Give the final thing, or a prototype of it, rather than just a recommendation.

Why does high fidelity consulting work?

I’ve been intuitively doing this for quite a long time - partly because I love to dabble across disciplines and skills. But more recently I’ve been thinking more critically about why this works. There’s some simple reasons:

  • Never underestimate vision. When you realize a prototype you naturally end up injecting your own point of view. For example - when I put together a mockup of a page I’m combining a decade-plus of experience with web-sites and web-pages including experience building my own sites with responsive design. Never take experience for granted. People may appreciate some the decisions you include in your prototype.
  • Allows for useful critique of the idea. The biggest failing of many consulting ideas is that they lack the necessary details to allow for critique. Until you bring the idea close enough to reality it’s hard to see the various ways it may or may not work. Realizing a prototype allows for this discussion and feedback.
  • Better aligns teams. As you move from prototype to production many of the original thinking can get lost. The reasons for being and the reasons for decisions are easier to articulate when you have specifics to point to. Details without ideas are dangerous and you don’t want to hand off a list of specs, you want to hand off something that will inspire as well describe.
  • Sometimes the prototype becomes the thing. For small enough projects, clients or ideas sometimes a prototype is all it takes to get the thing moving. This is especially true for things like reporting dashboards which can be pushed live and then iterated on. I have a client that I built a reporting dashboard for 4 years ago in Google Docs as “proof of concept” that they still use today.

The Centaur Consultant

My buddy Brian pointed out to me once that this hairball of ideas, prototypes, consulting and technology is “centaur consulting”. Borrowing heavily from Matt Jones’ idea of centaurs as technology-enabled (rather than technology-replaced) people: centaurs not butlers.

The only reason I’m able to build prototypes and high fidelity consulting is because I’ve been curious and interested in a variety of technologies and approaches.

  • I do my designing in Google Docs
  • I do my coding in Google Docs (or, increasingly, Glitch)

So, next time you’re thinking of recommending action, don’t just say “We could…” that’s low-fidelity consulting. Show the thing. Packed into a prototype or visual mock-up is a strong point of view. Experience of what works. Something to adequately critique.

Ideas AND details. Details AND ideas.

Update: Maxim has a great little tweet thread on this:

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This post was written by Tom Critchlow - blogger and independent consultant. Subscribe to join my occassional newsletter: