Wireframes have transformed the way user experience designers work. They give us more information than sitemaps but still concentrate on the fundamentals without requiring us to spend too much time and money on getting the details.
Essentially a blueprint or ‘skeleton’ for your design, a wireframe is a stripped-down black and white illustration of a layout that establishes the basic structure of a web page or app. It’s used to arrange and prioritize the main elements, such as the navigation and site features, and enables you to concentrate on your product’s functionality. Wireframes don’t convey the look and feel of your site and therefore don’t tend to include any visual design (such as styling, color, or graphics) or real content, which could be distracting at this stage.
Wireframes are typically used at the beginning of a project, once the site architecture has been determined and before the creative design stage kicks off. Simple blocks show where each piece of content or UI element will go and can be moved around before you create a higher-fidelity prototype. This process is also a great time to make use of structural formulas like the golden ratio. Let’s take a more detailed look at why you might need a wireframe.
Is a wireframe necessary?
Wireframes are great as a visual guide to get a good understanding of what a web page will look like and to get stakeholder and team approval, but it’s also important to be aware of their limitations. In this section, we’ll explore both the advantages and disadvantages of a wireframe.
Advantages of a wireframe
Quickly make design changes
As wireframes are low fidelity designs (often just paper prototypes), it’s much easier to make changes and implement feedback quickly. If a stakeholder wants the images to be bigger after having reviewed the wireframe, you can adjust the design within minutes. That way you can catch problems early and avoid any unnecessary revisions.
Make the site navigation process simple
An intuitive navigation that helps users find what they want is one of the most important aspects of a website. A wireframe enables you to evaluate and test your navigation — does the position and organization of your navigation make sense, or does it confuse the user? If you use best practices and keep the navigation simple, your users’ trust in the site increases.
Helps content development be design focused
Wireframes enable you to play around with the size and position of blocks of content and use design elements such as bullet points and subheads to ensure the legibility of the text. It also helps you decide on small pieces of copy (for example, a call to action) that can improve the user experience. A wireframe also helps you identify how your site accommodates content growth.
Helps web developers
As mentioned above, wireframes can help get stakeholder sign-off and team approval. They also make life much easier for web developers. Rather than basing the development on a sitemap, design templates, meetings, and assumptions, developers can refer to the wireframe to get a clearer sense of direction and a more tangible grasp of a site’s functionality.
Improves the user interface
Wireframes can be the key to an intuitive user interface. The fact that they enable you to see the basic structure of the UI means that they can be used for content audits and usability testing, helping you identify potential issues with user interactions at every stage of the design and development lifecycle.
Disadvantages of a wireframe
Can limit creativity
If a wireframe is one of the first things a stakeholder is shown for sign-off, it may limit the designers’ creativity, especially if they weren’t involved in the very early stages of the project. To avoid that, try to avoid putting too much information in your wireframe too early and get UX designers involved from the start.
May cause confusion
For the client, meanwhile, it can be hard to understand a wireframe. Clients usually aren’t involved in its creation, and as wireframes are static and don’t include any visual design, it can be difficult for them to grasp how the design will work in practice. Close collaboration and clear communication can help to avoid confusion here.
Can waste time and money
As the creation of the wireframe is usually being outsourced, the client may have to keep spending time and money on revisions until it meets their vision. Ensure your wireframe isn’t too high fidelity to avoid it having to go through many costly revisions and ensure it doesn’t accumulate too many annotations that need to be interpreted, which can lead to more confusion.
Wireframes and mockups: What’s the difference?
A quick look on Google demonstrates that people often ask if wireframes and mockups are the same thing. While there are a lot of similarities, they are quite different. So, to clear up any confusion, here’s a quick comparison.
As explained above, wireframes are used to communicate a visual representation of a website’s (or app’s) layout structure. They are low-fidelity, ‘bare-bones’ blueprints or skeletons, which usually feature placeholders for final content that will be filled in at a later stage of the design process. Without getting into too much detail, they enable you to play around with what goes where, the size of the most essential elements, and relationships between them.
Mockups, meanwhile, are much closer to the visual design of the product and provide a more realistic (yet usually still static) view of what it will look like. They are mid- to high-fidelity deliverables that tend to include details like color and typography. Mockups enable you to organize and experiment with visual details, test variations, find errors early on, and collaborate better with stakeholders and developers. As they are more detailed, however, they take more time and money to create, which is something to keep in mind.
Wireframes can be immensely useful in the early stages of a project. They give everyone a good overview of what you’re aiming to build and improve the collaboration between clients, stakeholders, designers, developers, and users alike. Whether they’re sketched on paper, made with a free wireframe tool, or created in an app like Adobe XD, they can catch issues before you jump into the design, saving you a significant amount of time and money.
Creating a wireframe is an important first step in the process of translating an idea for a product into reality, but it is only one part of the plan. Be aware of their limitations and use wireframes alongside mockups and prototypes, and they will help you move towards successful, intuitive products.