A wireframe is a visual blueprint of a website or application, a simplified representation of a web page that outlines the various elements, content, and functionality of the site without showing the finished design. Wireframes allow us to focus on the structure without thinking about design, which ultimately improves the user experience.
 
The example below shows how we use wireframing to show a client how a particular screen is going to look. We've added sticky notes to the design to explain how the functionality works. We find that this black-and-white cartoon style works really well because it keeps the focus on the layout of the page instead of the colour scheme or font choice. 
 
 
 

Different types of wireframes

Wireframes mean different things depending on the level of detail and purpose. We mainly use the term to describe digital black-and-white cartoons that show functionality, but there are lots of different types depending on purpose:
  • Paper sketches - simple, hand-drawn representations of a website's layout and structure with paper and pen. We use these to sketch out ideas at a meeting before moving on to more detailed wireframes.
  • Digital wireframes: created using software like Balsamiq, these provide a more detailed representation of the website's layout and structure, including content blocks, navigation, and functional elements. This is what most people would call wireframes.
  • Mockups: highly detailed including design elements like fonts, colour schemes and images. These provide a more accurate representation of the final design and are used later in the design process.
  • Prototypes: These are simple interactive websites that include clickable elements and functional components that simulate the user experience. We use them later in the design process to check that particular functionality is possible, or to show options for how something could work

 

The following image shows an example screen from a database management system that we created for a county council. We used wireframing here to show how the database fields will be displayed so that the client can check that we're capturing all the information in the correct way. 

 

Isn't this just an unnecessary extra step?

Not at all, wireframes help streamline the design process and allow the client to be much more involved in the design of their system. Wireframing can help streamline the web design process in several ways:
  • Improved user experience: wireframes allow us to focus on the site's structure and functionality, making sure that its logical and flows in a way that makes sense to users
  • Test ideas: wireframes bring more creativity into the design process because we can test out a bunch of ideas at a low cost
  • Faster, cheaper, easier to change: we can respond more easily to feedback without spending time making dozens of full-colour mockups
  • Collaboration: wireframes provide a really clear and easy-to-understand visual representation of the site's structure and functionality, which helps our clients understand what they're getting and gets them more involved in the process. 
  • Fewer design changes: because the client has been involved in the design from the start, we find that using wireframes means that there are few design changes later on in the project. It's hard to put a number on it, but we'd guess that it reduces pre-launch change requests by at least 50%.
  • Documentation: wireframes can serve as a form of documentation, providing a record of design decisions and project milestones
Wireframing helps us identify potential usability issues early on. By testing the wireframe with a small group of users, we can spot potential issues and make changes before we start building the site - this saves a lot of time and money. Wireframes are a valuable tool in the design process that helps clients understand what they're getting and ensures that we're all on the same page regarding the site's structure and functionality.
 
The following image shows part of a system that we designed in collaboration with the client. It enabled us to try out lots of different ideas for layout and content. Once the client had approved the wireframes, it formed a part of the documentation of how the system worked because we included lots of sticky notes explaining the functionality. 
 

 

Wireframes let you play

One of the most important parts of any creative process is giving yourself the time and space to play. I don't mean getting out the Lego, but putting yourself into a playful, creative mood that lets you think about problems in a new way.

A playful attitude helps us generate new ideas, create engaging experiences, and foster a sense of exploration and experimentation. When we play we're more likely to take risks, try new things, and think outside the box. This can lead to unexpected and innovative solutions to design problems.
 
For us, this is the most important reason to use wireframing tools like Balsamiq - you can quickly sketch out ideas and see how they look and work, and easily play with different ideas until you come to a solution that works. 
 
All these images were created with Balsamiq, which has a variety of pre-made icons that you can drop into your wireframes. 
 

Creating effective wireframes

Here are some tips to help you create effective wireframes for your web design project:
  • Understand your users: before starting, understand your target audience and their needs
  • Plan your content: this will help you structure your wireframes in a way that makes sense
  • Keep it simple: avoid adding unnecessary details or design elements that may distract from the overall purpose of the wireframe. Don't feel you have to wireframe every single screen on the website, just enough so that everyone understands the plan.
  • Focus on functionality: the main purpose of wireframes is to plan the functionality and user flow of your website. Thinking about accessibility early on will save time later. 
  • Include all screen sizes: make sure that you wireframe key screens at different sizes so you understand how the website translates to tablets or mobiles
  • Use placeholder content: in order to keep everyone's focus on the functionality, use fake Latin "lorem ipsum" text instead of real words
  • Use consistent elements: using the same layout, headers and navigation on every page will help your site visitors find their way around
  • Test and iterate: this is the perfect time to try out all your ideas and see what works - this will help you create a website that is intuitive and easy to use.
  • Collaborate: work with stakeholders and users throughout the wireframing process and get their feedback to make sure that it meets everyone's needs

The example image below is three wireframes animated (labelled 1, 2 and 3 at the top) to visually show how the autocomplete field at the bottom of the page works. Balsamiq exports wireframes as PDF documents with clickable links to jump between pages. This really helps the client understand how their website is going to work. 

 

Tools for wireframing

There are many tools and resources available for wireframing in web design. Here are some of the most popular (these aren't sponsored links):
  • Balsamiq: this is our favourite, all the wireframes in this post come from Balsamiq. $89 for the desktop version, from $90 per year for the cloud version
  • Sketch: a popular tool for MacOS only, starts at $99 per year.
  • Adobe XD: part of Adobe's Creative Cloud if you already subscribe to this
  • Axure RP: a rapid prototyping tool that allows for advanced interactions, from $300 per year
  • Moqups: a cloud-based tool used for wireframing, prototyping, and collaborative design, from €120 per year
 
 

In summary

Wireframing is a crucial step in the web design process that can help ensure that the website meets the needs of its users and stakeholders. By providing a visual representation of the website's structure and functionality, wireframes help designers and stakeholders collaborate effectively and make informed decisions about the website's design. When creating wireframes, it's important to keep in mind the needs of the user and focus on the core structure and functionality of the website. There are loads of tools available to help designers create effective wireframes.

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