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Website Wireframe Basics – Guide to Using Wireframes In Your Design Process

Web design has come a long way since the early days of the internet. What used to be blobs of text and images mashed together here and there has evolved into an elaborate and oftentimes confusing process. Terms like “user experience” and “visual design” get tossed around liberally, and without strong foundational knowledge, it can all start to get a little overwhelming.

In the modern web design process, one of the first things you should be doing is building a wireframe. In this guide, we’ll take a look at what exactly wireframing is, what the benefits are, why you should be using them, and so on. With a little luck, by the end of this article, you’ll be a wireframing expert with the knowledge necessary to tackle the largest and most elaborate of web design projects.

What are Website Wireframes?

Wireframes are one of the single most important parts of the entire web design process. Once you have the content in-hand and you have an idea about what you want to build, the very first step you want to take is to start creating wireframes.

But what exactly is a wireframe? To put it concisely, it’s the skeleton of your website. Before you ever move a single pixel, you want to figure out how to best organize all of the information on your site in a way that makes it easily accessible for your users. This is where user experience comes in and, more specifically, information architecture.

The goal of information architecture is to organize the information and content on your site in a way that makes it easy for a user to find what they want and complete the tasks they need to complete. When organizing your information in this matter, you work with wireframes before any other component so that you can focus on only the content and not how it’s designed.

What are the Benefits of Wireframes?

The benefits of wireframing can’t be overstated. The content on your page is the single most important thing, so it must be structured well and easily navigable.

Wireframing can actually help you refine your navigation. When you’ve put the content you have in a wireframe and presented it to users, they can tell you how easy it is to get the information they’re searching for without the distraction of visual elements.

Wireframes also make the whole design process iterative. You can quickly change the layout and composition of white boxes with black outlines to experiment with usability and navigation, and then once that’s nailed down, you can iterate to the next step of the design process without worrying about the usability.

Wireframing can also save you a lot of time. Once the visual design process has started, it can be time-consuming to make significant changes. Use a wireframe first, get the layout finalized, and then design visual elements around your content.

Another great benefit of wireframes is that it can help with the planning of the actual programming of the site. A programmer can take a finalized wireframe and begin the basic structure of the site, even while you’re still working on the design. This, in turn, can save a lot of time for everyone.

When Do I Need a Wireframe? Why?

As stated, you should begin your entire design process with wireframing. Once you have the content to design for, you should start with a wireframe and try to figure out the best way for your users to consume and engage with that content. This should be done with even a modest amount of content or information.

Taking the content you have, you can start with framing it in boxes and sections. For example, if you’re designing a site that has news articles, you can wireframe out the main article page. Add in boxes to represent things like images and banners. Try to make your article take center stage by using boxes to represent the menus and navigation, seeing how well you can frame them around the main content. Once you’ve figured out the best way for the content to be laid out, then you can begin designing around it.

Wireframes, Mockups, and Prototypes: The Differences

There can be some confusion regarding the differences between wireframes, mockups, and prototypes. While there can be a little overlap between them, there is a distinct difference between the three as each one represents a specific stage in the flow of the web design process.

Wireframes

By definition, wireframes are low-fidelity. They don’t have any visual design components added. They’re the most basic structure of the content, with outlines depicting the most basic shapes of the interface, often done in rectangles and circles. Think of a wireframe as the blueprints for a building: They can easily be changed, measured and redrawn.

Mockups

Mockups are the next stage in the design process. Once you’ve finalized the structure of your website design with a wireframe, you’ll move to the mockup stage. Mockups can be mid-fidelity, in that the visual elements are only generalized and details haven’t been added. They can also be high-fidelity, in that the visuals are near-complete and close to what the final site will look like. However, mockups are never functional. They’re only a visual representation. Which brings us to prototypes.

Prototypes

Prototypes are the last stage in the design process, and they’re essentially a high-fidelity mockup with some form of functionality added so that you can get a feel for how the final website will function. Prototypes can be created with applications or they can be a clickable website that’s not yet had the server code connected to it. The bottom line is that a prototype is meant to simulate the actual interaction between your website and the user.

Should You Use Lorem Ipsum When Wireframing?

Lorem ipsum is a concept that’s carried over from the early days of the publishing world. It’s the concept of using filler words, written in Latin, to get some text into your compositions so that you can design something visually appealing without the distraction of actual words.

This works well in things like magazines, newspapers and other print media. But you have to consider that these mediums of publishing are rather limited in their composition. Web content is much more dynamic, fluid, and has a much wider range of possibilities in its presentation. With that said, if you know the overall structure of the content, and you know that it’s not going to deviate from that structure, then it’s okay to use. Otherwise, whenever possible, you want to be wireframing with the actual content that will be on the finished website.

Top Website Wireframe Tools

It wasn’t so long ago that entire websites were designed from start to finish in Adobe Photoshop. The last few years have seen an explosion of amazing applications developed specifically for designing websites. And while it’s true that the concept of wireframing can still be done in Photoshop, there’s some great software out there that are built around the concept of wireframing and iterative web design from the ground up.

Balsamiq

Balsamiq is an application used specifically for rapid wireframing. It’s an incredibly intuitive program and probably the best one out there if you’re looking for something that’s purely for wireframes and mockups.

Its focus is on creating wireframes based on content and layout. It’s easy to grid out wireframe boxes, buttons, menu items, and so on, and you can export your wireframes for quick user feedback.

Where Balsamiq falls short, when compared to other applications, is features. Because it’s focused strictly on wireframing, it’s not meant to be an application to do all of your design work in. What it does, it does very well, but it is limited in this regard.

Sketch App

Sketch is a vector app that was created specifically for web and interface design, and it’s built from the ground up to fill in the gaps that Photoshop and Illustrator had in this regard. It’s extremely powerful yet still easy to use.

As stated, Sketch’s focus is on designing interfaces, whether for devices or the web. But it’s ease of use makes it excellent for creating wireframes as well. You can quickly and easily create boxes and grids of content, align them, transform them, fill them with text, and even create prototypes on the fly. And being that the software is fully-featured, once you’ve finalized your wireframe, you can start the design process in the same application and file.

Adobe XD

Adobe XD is actually Adobe’s answer to Sketch. It has all the same features as its competitor, and even has a remarkably similar interface, though the learning curve can be a little steeper. With that said, it’s still relatively easy to use and quite powerful.

Like Sketch, XD is designed to be an interface design application. It has many of the same great features, and as such, it makes an excellent program for creating fast wireframes that can be iterated on for you to build your content around. Where XD really shines is its collaborative features. It’s easy to share with a team and work on the same projects simultaneously. If you’re part of a creative team, XD might be worth the consideration.

Wiring it All Together

Hopefully, you now have a pretty clear picture of what wireframes are, how to use them and why they’re so crucial to the design process. The key thing to consider if you’re on the fence about incorporating wireframes into your process is the time they can save you and how well they’ll serve your users.

Using wireframes will ensure that your websites are easy to use and organized in a way that makes your valuable content accessible and engaging. Moreover, if you incorporate the full design process of wireframes, mockups, and prototypes, the process of designing sites will become faster, more efficient, and the sites you build will be better designed. Your users will thank you for it.