People (even designers) often confuse the terms wireframe and prototype. They know that both are part of the design process, but aren’t they similar in form and functionality? Aren’t they interchangeable? Aren’t they pretty much the same thing?
Actually, no. Both wireframes and prototypes serve distinct and unique roles in the product design process. While the main difference between the two often boils down to fidelity (how closely a mockup resembles the final product), there are other differences in design and functionality.
What are wireframes?
A wireframe is a low-fidelity mockup that serves 3 simple and exact purposes:
- It presents the information that will be displayed on the page
- It gives an outline of structure and layout of the page
- It conveys the overall direction and description of the user interface
The key to a good wireframe is simplicity. Remember how one of the main differences between wireframes and prototypes is fidelity? Wireframes are often low to medium fidelity, ranging from boxes and lines sketched on paper to onscreen creations that have a more polished look. Interactivity is at a minimum, so users can test behavior without as much concern for a product’s look and feel.
What are prototypes?
A prototype is a barebones, relatively simple working model of an app or webpage. They are typically the next step in the product design process after wireframing. Prototypes typically have color, animations, and (hopefully) the actual content that will be on or in your product.
Unlike wireframes, prototypes are often medium to high fidelity. They allow the user to test a digital product’s interface and interactions, and this level of functionality can be useful during the usability testing of an application. Because they often resemble a more finished product, the time and effort invested in creating a prototype can translate to savings during the development phase.
So what’s the difference, really?
If you think of your product as a human body, both wireframes and prototypes serve similar but distinct purposes.
Wireframes serve as the skeleton of your digital product. They’re the base, and they provide a general idea of the construction of what you’re building. Beyond the layout skeleton of the design, the content and copy is the muscle of the product. The earlier you have the content and copy for your design, the clearer the path will be from wireframe to prototype. It’s helpful to have the actual content in place to make sure everything flows the way you want.
Prototypes are a more visual representation of your product. Think of a prototypes as nearly formed bodies with moldable skin or facial features. Drafting a prototype is like making your creation suitable for the public. It’s not the final version, but it’s acceptable to show to other people. This is the point where all you should need to do is make tiny tweaks before you send your designs over to the engineers who’ll make it real.
Wireframing and prototyping tools
While there are tools out there that can serve as an all-in-one place to go from sketches to prototypes complete with HTML and CSS, there are also more specialized tools that focus on each part of the product design process. Below is a short list of ones that we recommend exploring:
- Pen and paper are an easy way to get started with wireframes. Sketching is often the fastest way to get ideas from your brain out into the world so that you can review, reflect, and revise. One of the major upsides of using paper is that none of your creations are too precious. You can always just crumple them up and toss them.
- Wirify by Volkside is a tool that “lets you turn any webpage into a wireframe in one click.” It’s used less for creating wireframes and more for analyzing pages in a clear, clear, streamlined way. This is great if you’re auditing an existing page in an effort to improve.
- Freehand by InVision is like a lightweight, digital whiteboard where you and your team can collaborate and communicate. The wireframes you create in Freehand are sharable and collaborative, and using Freehand saves you the tedious steps of scanning and uploading your hand-drawn wireframes, only to have to do it all over again when you make a tiny change.
Related: How to make your first wireframe
- Sketch is a vector graphics editor for MacOS that is used for screen and digital product design. It’s known as a (slightly) simpler tool to use than Adobe Photoshop. Pair Sketch with some of widely available UI kits, and rapid prototyping just got a whole lot easier.
- InVision (in case you didn’t know) lets you upload the design files you just created in Sketch or Photoshop (or, in the near future, InVision Studio) and add animations, gestures, and transitions to transform your static screens into clickable, interactive prototypes. You can also simplify your feedback process by having clients, team members, and stakeholders comment directly on your designs. It’s a one-stop prototyping shop.
We’re big fans of using Freehand to sketch out wireframes. Freehand is a tool that helps you do it all from wireframing to creative exploration, presenting to collaboration. Give it a try and let us know what you think!