Wireframes & Prototypes: Is There Really a Difference?

The terms “wireframe” and “prototype” are often used interchangeably – possibly due to convenience or misunderstanding – but it’s important to know what sets these two terms apart and how you benefit from each because sometimes your project will only need a wireframe, and sometimes it will require a prototype.

What is a Wireframe?

According to Usability.gov,

“A wireframe is a visual illustration of one Web page. It’s simply meant to illustrate the features, content and links that need to appear on a page so that your design team can mock up a visual interface and your programmers understand the page features and how they are supposed to work. One of the main purposes of a wireframe is to show you where each item should be placed on a page.”

While there are other definitions of a wireframe, I think this is the most accurate. It is simply a visual layout of a website or web application to determine where each component on a page will live, as well as identify the site map hierarchy. And, depending on the needs of a project, a wireframe may evolve from simple gray boxes identifying page real estate to including basic graphics or actual text so that designers and developers can gain a better feel for how everything fits together.

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Low-fidelity wireframe

 

Medium-fidelity wireframe

 

Once a wireframe starts becoming interactive – including animations, clickable navigation, and state functionality – it crosses the line into a prototype.

What is a Prototype?

A prototype is “a product that is designed and built to test a new design. The prototype is used to correct mistakes and make [the design] more user friendly” (wiki.answers.com). It is a “fully functional working model of a final product” (onlineschools.org).

Prototyping is a testing concept that originates from many other disciplines, including mechanical and structural engineering. However, it serves the same purpose for the interactive/digital industry as well. A website or web application prototype lets stakeholders take the visual wireframe a step further – or a few steps further, depending on a project’s complexity – in order to flesh out and test the specs before coding and development begin.

In the most basic sense, a low-fidelity prototype is often referred to as a “clickable” or “functional” wireframe. This is when one navigates between linked wireframe pages to understand how they are connected. But clickable wireframes can evolve into more advanced prototypes depending on the wireframe’s fidelity (gray box vs. graphic and text) and the complexity of interactions desired to present or test with stakeholders and/or users (accordion menus, carousels, etc.).

Medium-fidelity prototype with minimal visuals and interactions

 

High-fidelity prototype with interactions

 

The role of wireframes is to create a foundation for designers to start from and to flesh out requirements early in the interactive development process. Some projects are simple and straightforward enough that they can go directly to design and development once wireframes are approved. Other projects, however, involve complex functionality and interactions that require the need of fully functional prototypes. In addition to helping both the team and stakeholders visually understand proposed interactions, prototypes can be utilized for usability testing, thereby reducing rework after time and money are sunk into development.

Learn more about the benefits of high fidelity prototypes in this post.

Wireframes & prototypes facilitate communication

Wireframes and prototypes primarily differ in terms of functionality, but both serve as useful communication tools for digital teams to create better, more user-centered products, and produce better results than just having the developers jump right into building after goals are set.

Wireframes and prototypes also help stakeholders visualize the project specifications – based on research, goals, and assumed requirements – giving them enough information to provide early, useful feedback and get a product to market faster.

Working out the kinks prior to coding saves on expensive rework and allows programmers to build the website or web application right, the first time around. Using and, most importantly, sharing wireframes and prototypes open the lines of communication between UX and designers, designers and programmers, and project managers and clients or other stakeholders. By getting on the same page early in the process, you can set the tone for a successful project.

Learn more about working with clients during the prototyping process in this post.

Which one is for me?

While wireframes and prototypes have some similarities, they are really two different artifacts in the interactive development process, and used when the project requires it. How, or whether, your team uses wireframes and/or prototypes is completely dependent on the project, as well as your stakeholder and clients’ needs. Furthermore, it is important that you have the right tool that allows you to quickly and accurately develop and share the wireframes and prototypes you need to get the job done. Because, in the end, it’s all about developing, and launching, a successful project – both on time and on budget.

If you’re not sure how each fits into your process, contact us at ProtoShare to see how we can help.

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One Comment to Wireframes & Prototypes: Is There Really a Difference?

  1. Andy (Anandteerth Onkar) says:

    Hey Andrea,
    The examples you explained and have put up are just outstanding. I would rather like to officially seek your permission to use your examples pictures as it is in my presentation and article referencing your site.

    Thanks!
    Andy (Anandteerth Onkar)

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