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Wireframes are becoming less relevant — and that’s a good thing

Sean Dexter
Feb 24, 2019 · 6 min read

Over time I’ve found wireframes to be less and less useful, and I don’t think I’m alone. Because the term is somewhat loosely defined, it’s probably important to be specific. While there are many types of prototypes that examine levels of fidelity across various dimensions, I’d like to focus on the specific variant that most immediately comes to mind when hearing the word wireframe. It’s not a sketch or a fully realized mockup but rather the typical “middle” state —digital artifacts left intentionally unstyled and made to represent the “skeleton” of a full page in black and white. The prototypical wireframe attempts to be an accurate representation of layout and information architecture while intentionally avoiding high visual fidelity and sometimes high content fidelity as well.

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Behold the drab, spindly splendor of a wireframe in its natural habitat

In discussions I’ve had and online I’ve been surprised to hear wireframes are still posited as an essential step in the process of design. This attitude seems to be on the decline, but I’ve still heard everyone from early career designers to industry leading agencies insist on the necessity of a “wireframing phase”. The argument typically looks something like this:

⦁ Wireframes focus attention on usability instead of aesthetics. They prevent stakeholders derailing meetings over irrelevant details like button color, and they allow user testing to focus on interactions instead of visuals.

⦁ Wireframes are faster to create. They keep things conceptual and avoid the risk of getting too invested or attached to a particular direction.

⦁ There’s also a somewhat separate argument (more enterprise-oriented) for wireframes as a tool for detailed documentation of interactions without the additional overhead of visual design.

That doesn’t mean that everyone actually makes wireframes, but when someone admits they don’t it’s often in a hushed tone and without a lot of eye contact. They would like to include them. It’s just that the constraints of their organization, stakeholders, or project prevent it from always being possible. But the mindset that they are essential, and many beliefs about their advantages may be misguided. While I won’t deny that wireframes are ever useful, nowadays they’re valuable only in limited circumstances that are narrowing by the day. There are a number of shifts in industry thinking and practices that are contributing to this change and are worth examining.

Shifting product development methodologies are changing how design gets done

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This also includes fully realized design, making it important to consider visuals, information architecture, and interactivity simultaneously. On an agile team, where your next iteration is coming in days or weeks rather than months or years, the extensive up front mapping phase that so often gives birth to wireframes is less likely to have a place.

Lean UX is an accompanying process shift that seems to be gaining traction as well. In Lean, heavy design artifacts are de-emphasized or omitted entirely in favor of directly collaborating on the product itself whenever possible. Lean also provides a rebuttal to the idea of wireframes as a documentation tool. It suggests that the layout of screens in an actual product can serve as their own documentation. Design artifacts you create can instead become more temporary items — to be put aside as soon as the information they contain exists in an accessible way within the actual product. Other relevant context might still be documented but only at or after the point of implementation.

Usability and information architecture don’t exist in a vacuum

Wireframes are rarely effective for stakeholders

It’s getting faster and easier to approximate high fidelity visuals

Does wireframing ever make sense?

⦁ You really do have a product that will be visually complex (like a mobile game) and need to work out the interaction independent of an unavoidably long art process. Even if this is the case you can still do your best to approximate style.

⦁ You’re using them as an exercise to help someone learn about information architecture in isolation (hopefully a one-off rather than a recurring part of real product development).

⦁ You want to map out or test information architecture but have a dependency on someone else for visual design (not ideal!) or are limited in some way by the visual capabilities of the tools available to you, or by your own skill-set.

⦁ You’re in a dated waterfall or agency environment and don’t have yet have much autonomy over your process. This isn’t great, but may be outside of your control.

I’m sure there are plenty of other possible scenarios and exceptions, but I would argue that they are likely infrequent for most designers operating today. If you think of traditional wireframes as a tactic to be employed only when really suited for the problem, then you’ll probably find that they can often be avoided— and that’s OK.

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