Wireframing is an important step for all web design and prototyping work. A wireframe gives an overview of the structure, functionality, layout, information flow, and possible user behavior when interacting with a product.
Most commonly developed by user experience (UX) designers (although wireframes usually involve clients and developers as well), the process creates a tangible point of truth that all team members can evaluate and give feedback on.
During the initial stages of the product development process, designers use the wireframe to explore the project, test the scope, match the project to the business’s needs, and collaborate.
So, in web development, what exactly is fidelity?
What is fidelity in web development?
Fidelity refers to the level of detail on a wireframe. There are low, medium, and high fidelity wireframes. The type you use depends on the needs of a given project.
Since a wireframe is a simple representation of the finished product, it requires minimal styling, graphics, and color. With this in mind, it can be hand-drawn or created digitally.
However, even though it’s not meant to be polished, there are many necessary details a wireframe could (and should) contain. Thus, the project’s specific needs determine the kind of wireframe you create and the tools used.
Let’s go over the three major types of wireframes below: low fidelity, medium fidelity, and high fidelity wireframes.
Low Fidelity Wireframes
A low fidelity wireframe is a skeleton of a digital screen, web page, or application. It’ll have the bare-bones elements that will be included in the finished project. Low fidelity wireframes give designers and programmers an idea of where images, text, buttons, and interactive elements might be placed.
Low fidelity wireframes might be developed by hand as a quick sketch or they may be created in a wireframe tool like Figma or Sketch.
When should you use low-fidelity wireframes?
If high-fidelity means more detail, then why would you even consider creating a low-fidelity wireframe? Using low-fidelity wireframes is a good idea if you’re just starting a new design, have a large number of wireframe designs to create, or want to work quickly to complete a project. A designer might create several low fidelity wireframes to explore a concept and receive feedback from different stakeholders before moving on to a more detailed design.
1. You’re at the very beginning of the design process.
Low-fidelity wireframes are essentially sketches. Oftentimes, they’re drawn by hand with ink and paper. You might consider a low-fidelity wireframe to be a rough draft.
It probably won’t be the final wireframe you create, but it is a great place to start.
2. You have a lot of wireframes to create.
If your project has a huge scope of work, you probably don’t have a lot of spare time to spend on detailing every wireframe you’ll need to create. Start with low-fidelity wireframes for most pages, and then add more detail to the wireframes that need more clarity.
3. You need to complete a project quickly.
If you have a lot of wireframes to create, you’ll need to work quickly to keep a project moving along. But, you may have other reasons to create wireframes on the fly. If inspiration strikes, you may want to sketch out what you’re thinking about in the moment, rather than trying to remember it later.
Medium Fidelity Wireframes
A medium fidelity wireframe is a step up from its low fidelity counterpart. Medium wireframes will have more detail — including accurate spacing, headlines, and buttons. They might even be displayed together in a sequence called a wireflow that shows exactly how the web pages will work together.
Medium fidelity wireframes are usually created in a wireframing tool for more accuracy, precision, and detail.
When should you use medium-fidelity wireframes?
Using medium-fidelity wireframes is a good idea if you’re creating a wireframe map or are working through multiple design steps before designing a more fully functional prototype. Below are some additional use cases for medium-fidelity wireframes.
1. You’re putting a wireframe map together.
A wireframe map combines a visual sitemap with wireframes for each page. These are created to be comprehensive roadmaps for the development process. In this situation, there will need to be quite a few wireframes created, but low-fidelity wireframes will not offer enough detail and clarity to be followed.
It’s best to create medium-fidelity wireframes, which can be done relatively quickly but will still be easy to understand when others are following the wireframe map later on.
2. It's the next step in a comprehensive design process.
If your project has the time and budget, medium-fidelity wireframes are the next iteration after low-fidelity wireframes are established. Adding a bit more to your wireframes will further develop your design ideas.
High Fidelity Wireframes
A high fidelity wireframe is a realistic prototype that closely resembles the final design of a project. It can include typography, colors, images, icons, and CTA buttons. These types of wireframes take longer than the low and medium fidelity kind which means more resources are usually allocated to complete them.
High fidelity wireframes should be reserved for projects that have been approved by all stakeholders and are cleared for production.
To achieve the level of detail required for high fidelity wireframes, these are typically created with a digital tool.
When should you use high-fidelity wireframes?
Using high-fidelity wireframes is a good idea if you’re closer to the end of the design process, want to test more involved user interactions, have budget and time, are working on a personal project, and in instances where there’s an outside party you’re trying to impress.
1. At the end of the design process.
High-fidelity wireframes shouldn’t be created until you know exactly what your design needs to look like, based on multiple drafts at lower fidelity.
The changes made to high-fidelity wireframes should be visually minor (adding colors, photos, and branding), and the functionality should come to the forefront of the design conversation.
2. You need to test complex user interactions.
High-fidelity wireframes make it easier to communicate the various qualities of the product. More detail allows for more accurate judgment of the user interface (UI) elements. Rather than simply showing the product’s form, they illustrate its function so you can spot strengths and weaknesses.
3. You have the budget.
High-fidelity wireframes tend to consume a lot of design time and will be more expensive to produce. If you’re working with a designer and have the budget, this shouldn’t be an issue — so long as you’ve gained the approvals necessary to move forward.
4. You’re working with a partner you want to impress.
Taking the time to create a high-fidelity wireframe will demonstrate your professionalism, as you help a partner (like a potential investor) clearly understand what problem the project is intended to solve.
A high-fidelity wireframe also gives this third-party a better visualization of the final product. It shows them that you’ve adequately addressed all the nuances required to create both a functional and on-brand design while also helping you explain how it will work.
However, avoid making a high-fidelity wireframe the first wireframe you present. As mentioned above, a medium-fidelity wireframe will be less limiting and time-consuming as a first pass with a partner you want to impress. But, wowing them with a high-fidelity wireframe earlier rather than later can certainly work to your benefit.
5. You have the time.
High-fidelity wireframes are worth the time and cost necessary for production because they can help you make a better final product. They ensure that you are able to get everything you want without too many iterations to the design once it's in production.
Aside from that, getting to a high-fidelity wireframe typically means you’ve received input from various users with varied expertise.
However, high-fidelity wireframes are time-consuming (between design meetings and the actual process for creating them) and may not be feasible for projects that have short timelines and shorter budgets.
6. You’re working on your own personal project.
Of course, it’s important to invest your full abilities into work done on behalf of an employer. However, most people are willing to put in a lot more unpaid effort on a personal project.
And the extra time you input can be crucial to the success of your project if you will be using your wireframe to attract interest from investors. If you want to convince someone else to give you funds to move forward in the development process, you will need a visual (if not a functional prototype) that can fully illustrate your product’s potential. You can skip the collaborative drafting phase if you don’t need to convey your vision to anyone else.
High Fidelity Mockup Tools
- Adobe Photoshop
- Adobe XD
While low fidelity wireframes can be created by hand on a drawing tablet or with pen and paper, medium fidelity and high fidelity wireframes will require a digital design tool for the most effective results. If you’re looking for software that is intuitive, collaborative, and functional, take a look at these high fidelity mockup tools that can be used to create realistic prototypes that bring your design ideas to life.
Sketch is a leading wireframe tool loved by designers and developers alike. Designers can create pixel-perfect vectors for their prototypes with ease thanks to the intuitive user interface.
Because wireframing is an iterative process, Sketch understands there might be different teams popping in and out of the live document which means edits are bound to happen - intended or unintended. Boolean operations make your wireframe non-destructive, editable, and easy to combine at any stage in the design process.
High fidelity wireframes and wireflows are taken to the next-level in Figma. Designers can create an interactive experience where one screen leads to the next — all before the developers write a single line of code.
Because it’s built with a teams-first approach, Figma is ideal for remote design teams. Designing, exporting, and gathering feedback across multiple stakeholders are the main areas Figma excels in. With all this collaboration you won’t run the risk of losing important edits. The detailed version history ensures even the smallest tweak is able to be restored to its previous state. Best of all, this tool gives you access to data that reveals how design teams are using the systems you’ve set up and what opportunities you can take to improve your libraries.
Photoshop has become synonymous with design for the past 20 years. Photoshop is a versatile tool that is mostly known for altering photos, but it can also be used for wireframing.
You’ll have to get creative using the shape tools and text boxes. But once you’ve got your basic medium fidelity wireframe in place, adding the details of a high fidelity wireframe will be fairly straightforward thanks to the more familiar features in Photoshop, like layers and smart objects. If you want to take it a step further, you can animate several wireframes into a series using the timeline tool.
Your company might already have access to Adobe’s Creative Suite, so if you’re on a budget or need to create a wireframe quickly without learning a new tool, Photoshop will be your best bet.
4. Adobe XD
If you enjoy the UI and UX of Adobe’s tools, Adobe XD might be the wireframe tool you’ve been looking for. This high fidelity wireframe tool is compatible with popular wireframing software like Photoshop, Illustrator, and Sketch. That means you won’t need to start over if you pick up a design that was started in one of these programs.
With Adobe XD, you can:
- create and save design elements and then use them across different design systems.
- animate elements and add parallax effects right within the prototype.
- collaborate across teams with built in sharing tools.
Wireframing can be a slow process, especially for high fidelity prototypes. To speed up the process, InVision gives you access to pre-built low and medium fidelity templates.
InVision also allows you to collaborate in the way that works best for your team — whether that be in Slack, Jira, or Sketch. Plus, the brainstorming tool “Freehand” makes generating new ideas more efficient with animated wireframes and virtual sticky notes. If you need to map out processes to go alongside your new product design, InVision can help with that too thanks to the architecture brainstorm template inspired by AWS.
Here are a few wireframe examples that demonstrate their role in the design process:
Low-Fidelity Wireframe Examples
Low-fidelity wireframes are often hand-drawn. It’s an easy, fast way to get ideas in your head into a format others can see.
There are digital tools like Justinmind’s Sketching UI Kit that can help you put together clean, low-fidelity wireframes quickly.
Medium Fidelity Wireframe Examples
A bit more complicated than a sketch, medium-fidelity wireframes start to flesh out the full design but aren’t so detailed that they feel inflexible.
If you need to create a lot of wireframes, medium-fidelity wireframes will save time, while still clearly conveying a design for each page or screen.
High-Fidelity Wireframe Examples
This wireframe is a template example, but you can see that it incorporates colors and fonts, and is more complex than a medium-fidelity wireframe.
High-fidelity wireframes incorporate color, photos, and branding in this final design stage.
A Wireframe for Any Level of Detail
If you’re working on a digital design project for your website, you’ll need to make a wireframe. In fact, you’ll need to make several. Whenever possible, start with a low-fidelity wireframe and graduate to more detailed, high-fidelity wireframes as you work collaboratively to design your final masterpiece. Use one or more of the tools we recommend in this article to start turning your big ideas into beautiful prototypes.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in May 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.