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The Value And Limitations Of Wireframes, Prototypes, And Mockups

By Eva Barnes , Jul 28 2016
Wireframes Prototypes Mockups

Every custom-built website or app goes through several different stages before it can take on a final form for public release. These steps are a carefully structured process of planning, testing, coding, and more.

The topics addressed in this post—wireframes, prototypes, and mockups—are part of the UX design phase. To understand the importance of UX, we look at the design process as a whole and then explore these elements.

A High-Level Look At The Overall Web Design Process

According to Usability.gov, user-centric web design is a four step process; this diagram shows the main steps and the 26 sub-steps. However, keep in mind that this process isn’t set in stone; it simply shows the best practices of the industry. Most companies will customize this process according to their own needs but the general steps remain the same.

Web Design Process
Image Credit

Where Does UX Design Fit In?

Three basic UX-related sub-stages are a part of the “Design” step:

  1. Creating wireframes
  2. Design Mockups
  3. Prototyping

The “Design Mockups” step is not explicitly shown here but usually falls somewhere between the “Define IA (Information Architecture)” and “Launch Site”.

Wireframes are part of the “Define IA” step.

Prototypes can be created either after wireframes are completed or after mockups are ready.

These three elements are fundamentally different from each other. We will look at each of them in detail, explore their purpose, and learn their limitations.

1. Wireframes

Wireframes are the web design equivalents of architecture blueprints. They are a visual representation of layout, structure, navigation, organization, and other important elements of a web page. Think of them as the skeleton of a webpage which will later be fleshed out with color, images, and content. Wireframes are often made using a black and white color palette. This lets the designer focus solely on what‘s important instead of getting distracted by images and colors.

Wireframes
Image Credit

Standard Elements Of A Wireframe

  • Logo
  • Search field
  • Breadcrumb
  • Headers
  • Page title as an H1 headings
  • Any subheadings needed, ranging from H2-Hx
  • Navigation systems (global and local)
  • Body content
  • Share buttons
  • Contact information
  • Footer

Important Aspects Of Wireframes

  • Help visualize a webpage in the simplest manner
  • Their simplicity allows for quick refinements and iterations
  • They don’t contain any interactive elements

Recommended Tools For Creating Wireframes

2. Prototypes

A wireframe with interactive elements is called a prototype. Prototypes can be visually rich (high-fidelity) or simple (low-fidelity). Prototypes help designers check usability and interactivity of the website. The flow of the interface and the associated controls can all be tested using prototypes. Any issues in the navigation and usability become glaringly obvious once prototypes have been designed. This helps get rid of any bugs before the website goes live.

Prototypes
Image Credit

Recommended Tools For Website Prototyping

3. Design Mockups

Mockups are static displays which show the actual appearance of the product prior to launch. The main advantage of mockups is their flexibility. Designers can experiment with the visuals without worrying about the underlying code. They can tweak and refine the typography, colors, and styles. Mockups help perfect the look of the website.

Design Mockups
 jpdguzman (DeviantArt)

Advantages Of Creating Mockups

  • They present the finalized look-and-feel of the website
  • The branding elements are incorporated so they present a more engaging picture
  • User testing and feedback is easier with mockups
  • Mockups help achieve stakeholder buy-in early in the development process
  • They are easy to create. All you need is the basic knowledge of a photo editing software such as Photoshop
  • Mockups make it easier to implement revisions in your design
  • They show you how user-friendly your design is
  • They are easier to change because there is no clunky HTML or CSS
  • Mockups add an extra zing to your concept presentations
  • Good client feedback on the final product is almost guaranteed if they like your mockups
  •  A lot of the guesswork is eliminated from the design choices once you have created mockups

The following image shows the design mockups of a mobile app; the basic skeleton layout has been fleshed out and now includes images and web copy.

Advantages Of Creating Mockups
Image Credit

Recommended Tools For Creating Mockups

Clearing Up the Confusion Between Wireframes, Prototypes, and Mockups

Wireframes vs. Prototypes vs. Mockups

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Do I Need Mockups/Wireframes/Prototypes With Website Builders?

Website builders such as WordPress, Utterweb, Wix, Shopify, and Weebly, give users access to pre-built templates. Each of these templates are ready to use and don’t require you to create wireframes, mockups or prototypes. Since Professional web designers use website builders to create websites for clients, mockups prove to be useful.

However, small business owners who are building their own websites can skip this step. Even if you aren’t a professional web designer, you can still learn a lot from the traditional web design process. Knowing the fundamentals will help you develop an intuitive sense of what looks good on the web.

When creating websites, wireframes can be an invaluable tool for ensuring excellent usability and user experience. Some designers skip these steps and go straight to code. This strategy might be feasible in software development, but can create a big problem in website design.

About The Author

Eva is a marketing major with a keen interest in web design. She is also an explorer and loves to dig into web trends from mobile apps to visual communication and everything in between. Feel free to send her your web design queries or blog related feedback in the comments below.

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