If you're in the process of building or redesigning a website, one of your priorities must be the user experience (UX).
Marketers often like to think about websites strictly in terms of design or conversions, but to bridge the gap between the two, you need a great user experience. The UX concerns itself with how your target audience interacts with your website, and if any aspects of design or functionality could be improved to better assist users in reaching their goals.
Without good UX, your site stands very little chance of success when it comes to the goals your team has set for it.
By taking the time to create a wireframe before you get into design specifics, you can focus on the user experience as a separate (but connected) piece of the website design puzzle.
That way, a designer can test drive the page layout and evaluate user flows. This allows them to see exactly how the new website will function and find any potential mistakes that might eventually get in the way of conversions.
What is a Website Wireframe?
A website wireframe is used to map out the main features and navigation of a new website design. It gives an idea of the site's functionality before considering visual design elements, like content and color schemes.
Layouts and features such as menus and buttons are mapped out to assess the overall experience of the end user.
A website wireframe also provides a practical map of the project for team members to see where everything will go as they complete related tasks.
Some designers or clients may tempt you to skip this part of the process, calling it unnecessary and time consuming. But wireframing is about preparing yourself and all good preparations require time. And working without a plan usually takes up even more time and you run the risk of a project failing altogether.
You should always create a wireframe in the early development stages because it will help you reveal errors in judgment or design, giving you time to correct them. In terms of collaboration, you can use wireframes to work effectively with your team and explain concepts to your clients.
Some wireframes are more detailed than others. It's wise to start with a low-fidelity wireframe. Low-fidelity wireframes show the general localization of elements on the screen. You can develop these initial designs into more high-fidelity wireframes, which provide more details — such as what the final elements will look like.
Whether you use a low-fidelity or high-fidelity wireframe will depend on what your project needs at the time.
Below are some of the best examples of wireframe types to light up your creative zones and help you solidify your the wireframing process that works for you.
Some developers begin their sketching with a pencil and paper or a whiteboard. This simple, hand-drawn method illustrates a basic concept before spending time fussing with graphical elements.
Hand-drawn wireframes don't always have to be simple. You can use a ruler in addition to your pencil and paper to create a more detailed design. However, it might be more convenient to use a digital wireframe tool for such detailed work since your hand-drawn efforts may be difficult to digitize.
Low-fidelity wireframes are created digitally and display elements in simple content blocks, taking your basic concept sketch and turning it into something more refined. Low-fidelity wireframes are important for determining what graphical elements need to be created and what copy needs to be written.
Don't forget that responsive versions of your website and mobile apps get wireframes too. Many designers even wireframe the mobile version first since website visitors are visiting sites on mobile more often than ever before.
Using digital tools, you can create a high-fidelity wireframe that illustrates in more detail without the creation of too many graphical elements. This results in a more aesthetic look without time-consuming design work that could be thrown out in the review process anyway.
You can also use wireframe tools to create an interactive mockup without creating the actual site, complete with a UI Kit and graphical elements. This step can be helpful if you have a design team that is handing off the site implementation to developers because they can review both the intended look and functionality of the site, resulting in a more streamlined workflow with fewer revisions needed.
These are just a few examples but they show how website wireframing can be achieved in different ways.
Mockup vs. Wireframe vs. Prototype
A wireframe is the first step to communicating your website ideas to other people. It provides a basic foundation from which other people can see and understand. A mockup goes a step further, illustrating the expected appearance of the product. A prototype can be created after a wireframe and mockup have gone through the design approval process.
Prototypes provide even more detail about the website design, revolving around the feel of the website for the user and basic functionality — such as demonstrating what an element looks like when you hover your mouse over it.
Wireframes, mockups, and prototypes are similar pieces in the website development process and involve design steps that happen in close succession to one another. Sometimes, they can overlap depending on the designers needs.
This explains why some people find it difficult to understand the differences between these three concepts.
So what's the difference between a mockup vs. wireframe vs. prototype?
The best way to summarize the difference between a mockup vs. wireframe vs. prototype is by illustrating an example: where a wireframe shows a blank rectangular box, a mockup shows a resulting blue button, and a prototype shows what it looks like when it's clicked.
Now that you understand what a website wireframe is, you probably want to know about the tools available to create them. Instead of using a simple pen and paper, save the trees and explore the possibilities of using digital tools.
The aforementioned wireframe tools are some of the best premium options but if you don't have a lot of money to spend right now, these next options have useful features that will help you get the job done.
Free Wireframe Tools
Short on budget but intrigued by the concept of website wireframes? There are several free and freemium options available for your consideration.
Here are some free wireframing alternatives to the tools mentioned above:
How a Website Wireframe Improves the Design Process
If you want a functional website, you must first start by making a proper plan for executing the design. With a wireframe, you can easily map out the elements of each page and make changes as you see necessary. When your project is near completion, the number of errors will be significantly reduced by taking the time to create wireframes.
Start with a low-fidelity wireframe and take your time adding details. When shopping for a tool, exercise similar caution to find one that fits your specific design needs.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in March 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Nov 20, 2020 7:00:00 AM, updated November 25 2020