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What are wireframes? Plus, why they're key to successful product design

A product is only as good as its structure. Your wireframe is the foundation.

Illustration by Ashger Zamana

Profile picture of Nick Babich

6.5.2024

6 min read

Good structure is an essential web design principle. When an architect plans a new house, they start by creating a blueprint that communicates the structure of the house. Product designers need a similar blueprint—it’s called a wireframe.



Cool. What are wireframes, exactly?


Wireframes are the barebone visualization of your idea. The overriding goal of a wireframe is to describe the structure and functionality of a user’s flow. Functionality is anything that the user interacts with, such as buttons, menus and dropdowns. 


Without addressing the visual details or the UI design, a wireframe demonstrates the product’s general layout and states which elements need to be included on each page. There are many available wireframe tools for designers to choose from. (More on that in a bit.)




Why is wireframing so important?


A wireframe is necessary in mapping out the essential parts of an interface. It helps everyone involved gain a full understanding of the product near the beginning of the process. Without this foundation, it’s next to impossible to continue with the coding or design of the product. It also provides an easy and low-cost way to compare a few design concepts and make decisions early on. 


Since wireframes are so visual, they’re more accessible than written ideas that can seem abstract. Showing a wireframe to developers or to your clients will help them clearly understand your intentions, enabling you to receive the relevant feedback and implement it into your design.



What’s the difference between a wireframe and a mockup?


It all about the level of detail. You start with a wireframe, which is more about the structure and layout, then progress to a mockup, which includes images and content that's closer to the final product.


The final step before creating the actual product is turning your mockup into a prototype by making it clickable. If you're wondering how prototypes compare to mockups, it comes down to the level of interactivity. Wireframes are static design artifacts, while prototypes are interactive. Prototypes range in their level of sophistication, from elaborate website mockups to UX prototypes created with code that truly behave and feel like the actual product. Wireframes are typically the first step toward a prototype.


A wireframe, a mockup and a prototype of the same website, shown in mobile phones.


Different types of wireframes


Like any good friend, wireframes stick by your side throughout the process. As you gain a better idea of your product, you can gradually implement more advanced forms of wireframes, building them up from all perspectives as you move from one stage to the next. Here’s a brief explanation of the different types of wireframes.



Low-fidelity vs high-fidelity wireframes


Wireframes can vary in the level of detail, also known as fidelity. There are three main types:


  • Low-fidelity wireframes. Low-fidelity wireframes are basic visual representations of the page or screen, created using simple shapes such as lines and boxes. Because of their visual simplicity, this type of wireframe is known for its speed of creation. They can be created right during brainstorming sessions and help communicate ideas more effectively. However, low-fidelity wireframes tend to be more abstract and might require explanation.


  • Mid-fidelity wireframes. These have a bit more detail than low-fidelity wireframes. You won't find website animations, parallax scrolling, photos, fancy fonts or graphics, but you’ll see more realistic spacing, buttons and the like.


  • High-fidelity wireframes. High-fidelity wireframes go into increased levels of detail— they might include real copy and provide more accurate representations of the layout (for example, different font sizes can be used to separate headings and body content). Since high-fidelity wireframes take longer to create, they’re usually reserved for later stages of the product design process (like when you have two versions of a page layout and want to compare them side by side).


How to produce a wireframe efficiently 


Wireframes can vary in their production. There are hand-drawn wireframes, which are sketches on a piece of paper or whiteboard, and digital wireframes, which are computer-drawn or created on a wireframing tool. 


You can use Wix Studio's responsive wireframe templates to get a head start on your next project (see example below), or use our premade wireframes in the Editor to guide the structure of specific site sections.





How to use wireframes according to best practices:



01. Keep wireframes simple


Speed and simplicity are the two main attributes of wireframes. There are a few visual conventions that you can apply to easily communicate your ideas to other designers.


  • Input fields: An input field can be represented as a rectangle.

  • Buttons: A button can be represented as a rectangle with text in the center. 

  • Image: An image can be represented as a rectangular box with an “X” through it.

  • Text: Depending on the level of fidelity, it’s possible to use either placeholder text (like Lorem Ipsum) or real text.



02. Keep styling to a minimum


The goal of wireframes is to determine the intended content and functionality of an interface, and not to depict the visual design. That's why wireframes are typically created in black and white or grayscale. The lack of color, images, typography or any other visual attributes helps minimize the distraction and focus the discussion on the layout and structure.


Another benefit of this approach is that the design doesn't look finished. It's much easier for other people to share design feedback when they know the visual assets didn’t take long to create and can be quickly modified.


Keep in mind that while design should be minimal, it doesn’t mean that it's prohibited to use colors. You can use a contrasting color to direct user attention to a particular element of the wireframe. For example, use blue color to communicate interactive elements like call-to-action buttons.




03. Add notes to wireframes


Since wireframes are two-dimensional and static, it might be difficult for other people to understand how something is supposed to function. For example, if you have complex interactive features in your interface like drag-and-drop objects, other people might need to use their imagination to understand how this will work. Add a short note next to the UI control to explain the intended behavior.



04. Ensure stakeholders understand what to look for in wireframes


While designers and developers understand what wireframes are and why they look a certain way, clients might have problems grasping the concept. Business owners might easily assume that the final visual design will look the same as the wireframe they see in front of them and ask questions like, "Why is this design so black and white?," or worse, reject the solutions altogether. Make sure to only share wireframes with stakeholders who are well-versed in the product design world, or clearly communicate the essence of this step. In some cases, it's safer to create high-fidelity mockups.  



05. Use high-fidelity wireframes as documentation


Many teams think of wireframes as temporary artifacts that are replaced with prototypes. That’s not always true. High-fidelity wireframes can be used to document complex concepts such as navigation systems or particular user flows (like a series of screens that the user goes through).



06. Create a few iterations for the same screen at the low-fidelity stage


At this point, you should still keep your options open. As you move on, you will have a better understanding of the product and your choices will be more informed. Once you decide on a flow, you can go into more detail.



07. Know when to describe instead of design


Describe hierarchy in terms of spacing, sizes and layout, while being careful not to design the UI while doing so. Pinpoint the most important message to pass on and consider what the user will be looking out for on that particular page. Is their intent to subscribe to a newsletter, add a filter to their photo or make a purchase? Whatever it is, simply state it, as opposed to designing it.



08. Don’t skip the wireframing phase!


Other than giving you the chance to focus on developing an all-round positive user experience, wireframes save time, because they help you identify and deal with any usability issues early on in the process. Of course, like with everything in life, there are exceptions to the rule. You may come across instances in which it’s unnecessary to create a whole wireframe, such as when tweaking a pre-existing feature or adding a simple screen to a product that already has a defined language. But in general, consider the wireframe an early step to creating stunning work for your clients.


Learn more about Wix Studio’s design features and start building your next site today.



Additional reporting by Dana Meir

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