Is Wireframing Obsolete?

We came across an article from 2010 that recently piqued our interest because we are still observing many providers and clients in the industry debating which approach is the ‘best practice’. Is wireframing dead? In recent years there has undeniably been a significant industry shift toward rapid prototyping. At Native, we still find that there’s a place for both approaches, but it’s important to recognize the projects best served by each.

What’s the Difference?

As an overview, wireframing is the formerly ubiquitous approach to web design that uses diagrams to illustrate how a page will function. Wireframes map out content, navigation, and interactive elements without incorporating design details. Rapid prototyping, on the other hand, is a newer technique involving the production of mock-up iterations (often built on top of pre-existing templates) that more closely resemble the final product.

The Pros of Rapid Prototyping

Alex, Native’s digital director, estimates that about 95 percent of our web design work goes straight to rapid prototyping. This decision comes down to how much we know at the outset of a project, with rapid prototyping winning out in situations where we know the full scope and the branding is intact. In these cases, there is no need to reinvent the wheel: a template may be adapted to meet the client’s unique needs and simplify the process.

When it suits the project, rapid prototyping can be incredibly beneficial. It’s generally faster and less expensive, and it allows the client to more easily visualize the end product throughout. Rapid prototyping also answers a lot questions at once, whereas the wireframing process can sometimes lead to a build-up of questions upon questions even before the actual design work is underway. As a more fluid model, rapid prototyping can also allow a design team greater flexibility without locking into a direction too soon, a common issue that can arise with wireframing.

The Place for Wireframing

While the vast majority of the projects we work on are suited to rapid prototyping, wireframing still serves a purpose in instances where the full scope of a project may not be as clearly defined. In these more open-ended cases, wireframes can help iron out exactly what it is the client wants. So that clients can get a better sense of how all the elements of their site will ultimately function, we use a program called InVision to marry traditional wireframing with interactive prototyping.

It’s true that the need for wireframing arises in a fairly small percentage of the work we do. However, we believe it’s crucial to assess each project and each client individually rather than apply a single, static approach across the board. Instead of ditching wireframing altogether, we’ll be keeping it as part of a fully stocked toolkit that allows us to adapt to client needs.