How Wireframes and Prototypes Improve Digital Projects

Posted by in UX Design, Web Development

Court Theatre wireframe examples
Desktop and mobile wireframes used on a website redesign project for Court Theatre.

Wireframes and interactive prototypes are the blueprints behind any successful digital product. In this post, we share how wireframing and prototyping can improve your next project.

It is not uncommon for a website or digital product to launch and miss the mark. Target users are confused or disinterested. Other project stakeholders are upset because their favorite piece of content didn’t make the homepage. Sometimes, this is due to inadequate wireframing and prototyping processes early in the project. Consensus wasn’t achieved and now people are upset. Let’s explore what we can do about that.

What are Wireframes?

Wireframes are the blueprints for any digital product component or website page layout. Similar to their architectural counterparts, wireframes help key project stakeholders visualize and better understand specific features and functions for a digital product or service before it is designed or built. They play a key role in successful digital product design.

Wireframes translate common discovery workshop and product roadmapping exercises about aligning business goals and user needs into tangible representations of your product’s features and functions. They are the first step toward visualizing an end product.

Wireframes are not Design Comps

It is important to distinguish wireframes from their design comp counterparts. Wireframes are not meant to show look and feel or any visual treatment of graphic elements like buttons, headings, and so on. Typically, they are created with little to no color and simple shapes, like boxes and arrows. Often, they also don’t include real copy, though if you adopt a content-first approach to digital projects, they might.

Who Benefits From Wireframing?

Every project has key groups of stakeholders. Let’s take a look at how wireframes can help improve each stakeholder group’s understanding of product features and components.

  • Users: If you’re unsure of how a specific component or feature will resonate with target users, wireframes and their interactive prototype counterparts can be a great way to test feature and navigation validity with real users.
  • Clients: Possibly more than any other deliverable, wireframes help agency clients clearly understand how the components of a specific page or feature work together in the service of business goals and user needs.
  • Product Managers: Wireframes and prototypes help product managers visualize new features and functionality as a product is improved over time.
  • UI/UX Designers: The wireframing process helps designers better understand where UI elements need to be placed on a page or screen and how content, design, and interactions combine to create successful user flows.
  • Developers: Wireframes help developers understand functionality which informs a solid programming strategy. They also offer a more accurate picture of a project’s complexity to help developers better predict the time it will take to complete tasks. This is especially critical when wireframes and user flows are created in a workshop setting.

Aligning Stakeholder Needs

From an agency perspective, wireframing helps project stakeholders understand design challenges and catch potential issues which may arise before a project goes into development. This can save valuable time and and money and remove potential errors before they occur.

At Mightybytes, explaining to our clients how their product is going to work, look, and feel before anything is actually created can be challenging. Most clients can’t make impactful decisions until we deliver something tangible for them to interact with. Wireframes help us address this challenge. They also assuage any uncertainty about our confidence level in a particular component or feature. More on this below.

Perhaps most importantly, once wireframe sign-off is received, developers can begin work building out a digital product before the visual interface is completed, again saving time and money.

image of various fidelity wireframes
The level of wireframe fidelity you need depends on numerous factors. Also, wireframes (two left) are not design comps (right).

Wireframe Fidelity

Wireframes can range from low-fidelity, hand-drawn sketches created on a workshop whiteboard to high-fidelity page layouts meant to help project stakeholders understand key functionality and information hierarchy. When and how we apply each really depends on a project’s scope, budget, timeline, and the level of confidence we have over whether or not a feature idea will resonate with target users.

Let’s take a look at several wireframing options and weigh the pros and cons of each.

photo of wireframes sketched out on paper
A low-fidelity wireframe sketched on paper back when homepage carousels were a thing.

Low-Fidelity Wireframes

There’s a lot to be said about hand-drawn sketches. They’re quick. They’re easy. They’re informal. They get ideas across without wasting too much time, which means they can save time and money. But they’re not perfect.

When to use low-fidelity wireframes:

Whether created on a whiteboard during a workshop or sketched out by a designer shortly after a meeting, low-fidelity wireframes are a great way to quickly build consensus among project stakeholders on page layouts and feature ideas. Create them during or after discovery and product roadmapping sessions but before visual design processes begin.

Pros:

  • Low-fidelity wireframes save time over their higher-fidelity counterparts.
  • Because they are typically hand-sketched, you can make multiple options fast.
  • You can quickly create consensus among multiple stakeholders in a workshop or on a Zoom call.
  • They are perfect for simple projects like single features, widgets, landing pages, etc.

Cons:

  • Because they’re drawn on whiteboards or paper, scale is skewed, which makes it difficult to visualize responsive elements across browsers and devices.
  • While you can draw lines between page elements on different wireframes, this approach doesn’t effectively visualize interactivity or accurately show user flows very well.
  • They are unrefined, which can lead to misunderstandings.

Ideas generated during sketching sessions are intentionally “rough” and early stage, so it is also important that everyone keeps an open mind. This is good in that it helps people generate lots of ideas. It is challenging in that these sessions are often open to misinterpretation, especially since a lot of valuable information is missing.

However, if a project is simple, like a landing page or new component, this might be all you need. For more complex projects, you will need to up the fidelity a bit.

Image showing high-fidelity wireframes alongside page design mockups
High-fidelity wireframes (left) can easily translate to realistic design comps (right), as in this project for the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers.

High-Fidelity Wireframes

The higher a wireframe’s fidelity, the more information it typically conveys. However, as noted above, wireframes are meant to help stakeholders understand functionality, not design decisions, so it is important they remain simple and function-forward in their display of information.

When to use high-fidelity wireframes:

Use high-fidelity wireframes when project stakeholders need to clearly understand details of a page layout or how a specific feature will work. In tandem with experience maps, user flow diagrams, or customer journey maps they help stakeholders better understand interactive elements.

Pros:

  • High-fidelity wireframes build consensus on key product features and page layouts.
  • Once sign-off is received, some of the visual design and product build processes can be done in tandem, saving time and money.

Cons:

  • Higher fidelity typically takes more time to produce. This can eat up a UX design budget.
  • They sometimes don’t accurately convey interactivity, which can lead to confusion and misunderstandings.

Interactive Prototypes

Interactive prototypes are typically created by stringing a series of wireframes (usually higher fidelity) together with clickable ‘hotspots’ to mimic real-world interaction. Some simple programming may be involved, though products like InVision make this a quick and easy process to complete.

Image depicting two screens of an interactive prototype, one where the user is not logged in (left) and one where they are (right).
Interactive prototypes are useful to show page components when a user is logged in (right) versus when they aren’t (left), as in this example from the Presidents’ Council on Disability in Philanthropy.

When to use interactive prototypes:

Use an interactive prototype when wireframes fall short or don’t otherwise effectively serve their intended purpose. Perhaps interactions are too complex or include animation not easily visualized with flat boxes and arrows. Visualizing interactivity often answers many questions.

Interactive prototypes are also great if you can build atop existing wireframes. Project stakeholders will solidly understand user interactions, given that there’s something tangible to interact with. Finally, interactive prototypes are also very useful when your level of confidence about user engagement is low. Not sure if users will like your fancy new shopping cart or ticket purchasing interface? Create a prototype to test it!

Pros:

  • Interactive prototypes offer a solid representation of interactivity.
  • They can be improved and built upon as stakeholders learn new information.
  • Prototypes answer important questions about user task flows.
  • They also offer great representation of sizing and placement of interactive elements.
  • In some cases, they can save time on front-end programming.

Cons:

  • Depending on their complexity, interactive prototypes can be time consuming to create.
  • They might also be difficult to modify.
  • Depending on which approach you take, programming knowledge may be necessary for successful execution or updates.

Improving Your Digital Projects

In conclusion, most sizable digital projects need to support a healthy wireframing and prototyping budget in order to be successful. They also need clear processes to help stakeholders understand key project elements.

We do some level of wireframing on every project and frequently incorporate prototyping and user testing into many as well. This is especially critical for products with large amounts of complex interactivity. It cuts down on future project headaches which is priceless, and gives everyone peace-of-mind about expectations.

In fact, if a client’s budget can’t support some variation of this process, we will likely turn the project down. It is that important. If an agency you’re considering doesn’t have clear wireframing and prototyping processes in place, think twice about working with them.

Mightybytes is a Chicago-based digital agency and Certified B Corporation. Connect with us on Twitter or get in touch via our contact form.