What is a Wireframe?

Great Products ConsultingAnalyse (Validation), Define (Requirements), Develop (Build, Design)Leave a Comment

A wireframe is a drawing of a screen as it might appear on a website, an online platform or a mobile app. Wireframes are very powerful tools for describing what you want to build, and for illustrating your idea. In this article, I’ll explain the different types of wireframes and how you can use them to create your platform or app.

On the web and on mobile apps, screen design plays a key role in how your customer and users interact with your product. These designs are usually created by user experience (UX) designers; often with the input of graphic designers (some user experience designers have visual design skills as well).

Wireframes in Product and Software Development

Traditionally, screens would have been envisaged in the “design” phase of the development process. Developers and designers would sit together to determine how a user will move through the application, and what the screens should look like.  However, screens can play a vital role in explaining what a product should do. As a result, screen designs are edging their way into earlier phases of the software and product development processes.

As you’re validating your idea during the “analyse” phase of product development, wireframes can used to test your product idea. You show the screens to potential customers so they can understand what you’re trying to do and what the product might look like. The screens can even be linked together so people can ‘navigate’ through a particular feature. The feedback is invaluable in terms of seeing how people interact with your idea.  You can also get their reaction to your solution and whether it solves their problem.

In terms of defining your product (the “define” phase of product development and the “requirements” phase of software development), wireframes are a great way to illustrate to developers what you want your product to do. In some cases, people get UX designers involved here to get some detailed wireframes outlined before starting development. However, be aware that there’s often a strong dependency between what the screen looks like versus how things work behind the scenes. In some cases, the designed screens may have some technical constraints, so you might have to re-do some of the screens at a later date.

Types of Wireframes

Wireframes come in different levels of detail and each one of them has different uses when creating your product:

1. Low-fidelity wireframes

These wireframes are hand-drawn and very high-level. They show the overall placement of content on the screen using boxes to represent areas of content, and lines to represent text. These are often used to map out what screens are required, the flow of the screens and the high-level content (e.g. picture, text, button, menu bar, etc). The idea is that you don’t want to spend too much on the detail. You’ll use these “lo-fi” wireframes in the “analyse” and “define” phases as you’re just illustrating concepts.

2. Medium-fidelity wireframes

Lo-fi wireframes are converted into computerised images with software tools like Sketch or Balsamiq or even basic drawing tools like PowerPoint. The high-level content is replaced with additional details – such as what type of picture will be displayed, what content will be included (e.g. contact information, user registration), etc.

3. High-fidelity wireframes

High-fidelity (“hi-fi”) wireframes often look like graphical representations of the actual screens. User experience designers will provide actual fields on a form (e.g. field labels, field types - calendar, drop downs, radio buttons, etc), general spacing and navigation. Graphical or visual designers will fill in the pictures, colours, font types, logos, styling etc. Items on the screen are annotated to include design and development notes (e.g. click here to go to the home page).

The diagram below shows the level of detail in different types of wireframes:

In many cases, people don’t bother with hand-drawing screens, go straight to the computer, and call them lo-fi wireframes. Some people will skip that step altogether, and go straight to hi-fi wireframes. It doesn’t really matter what you do – it’s more a matter of how much time and money you want to spend on it. It’s much quicker to hand-draw something rather than to put it on a computer. If you end up with multiple iterations of your screens or end up with new screens altogether, you spend less time and money doing this when you’re drawing boxes and lines versus very detailed screens.

It’s important to remember that during “analyse” and “define/requirements” activities, wireframes should be focused on “what” rather than “how”. You don’t want to restrict your developers by telling them “how” you want something done.  Wireframes should be used to show them “what” people should be able to do, and the outcomes or benefits they expect from using your product.

Why should you care?

Depending on your budget and skills, you need to determine whether you want to create your wireframes or get someone to do it for you. You may want to draw low- or even medium- fidelity wireframes, and then pass them on to a designer. Alternatively, you may decide that your strengths lie elsewhere, and you hire a designer to do the wireframes from scratch. If it’s the latter, then you'll still need to provide some guidelines to your designers, and this can be done in your product definition.  This instructs the designer on what the product should do.

Either way, knowing how to draw wireframes, and understanding the different levels of detail are important skills to have. Pictures are a very powerful communication tool, and can be used throughout the development process to show developers what you want them to do.

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