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What’s the difference between prototyping and wireframing?

Last updated

11 January 2024

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Mary Mikhail

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When designing a new product, designers and product managers go through a complex process of transforming a concept into reality. 

Wireframes and prototypes are two techniques that help stakeholders visualize and refine the product during the design process

It’s important for product managers and designers to understand how the two tools vary to make the most of them. Let’s learn more about these two design assistants.

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What is a wireframe? 

A wireframe is the most basic, stripped-down design version. It gives a very high-level, barebones representation of the product, looking at the overall layout without getting into the details. 

You'll sometimes hear people refer to a wireframe as a low-fidelity design, meaning it has no details and minimal design elements. 

Typically, a wireframe consists of placeholders for future design elements, giving stakeholders a basic idea of the product’s layout. Once agreed upon, the wireframe becomes the design’s foundation. 

For example, the wireframe for a new website might indicate where images, text boxes, and menus will go on in the layout. Branding, image selection, and copy creation all come later. 

What are the benefits of wireframing? 

It's quick

Wireframing shouldn't take long—you aren't putting any details into the design. You can create a wireframe in a few minutes with pencil and paper. They’re ideal for quick iterations. 

Because they’re so quick and low-cost to create, wireframes are an excellent way to establish a basic product design without much investment. 

It conveys a lot of information

It can be challenging to explain to a client where you want to place a button or how big an image should be on a portfolio page. Wireframing can convey these ideas efficiently and help stakeholders see, understand, and give feedback on your initial concepts. 

It gives you a solid starting place

Wireframing can ensure you have all the high-level concepts before working on the details. A good wireframe can be the foundation for the rest of the design process and prevent wasted time. 

What are the limitations of wireframing? 

Wireframes are terrific for initial concepts and determining the overarching layout of a product. However, they’re limited when it comes to the details. 

Wireframes won't help clients see how their branding fits the design or how it might look with all the finishing touches. You’ll determine these details later, particularly in the prototyping phase. 

What is a prototype? 

A prototype mimics the final product as closely as possible, including design elements like images, color schemes, and branding. They may also include interactivity and a user interface

People sometimes call them high-fidelity designs because they contain a lot of detail and visual elements.

Designers usually produce prototypes in the final design stages for stakeholders to check the product’s visual appeal and usability before production. 

For example, a website prototype might include all the final design elements and mimic the transitions a user would experience when moving from one page to the next. It may not include live links or a final copy, but it closely represents the overall user experience.

What are the benefits of prototyping? 

It reflects the look and feel of a product

Prototypes are ideal for gathering feedback on the product’s design, ensuring everything is suitable for the final iteration. 

It reduces design costs

Prototypes might look like the final product and don’t require any engineering effort. That means no production money is wasted if stakeholders decide to change a design element, such as the color scheme or a button’s function. 

It helps catch usability issues

Prototyping allows stakeholders to experience the product before releasing it to the public. Interacting with something that mimics the final product makes it easy to catch any usability errors. 

What are the limitations of prototyping? 

Creating prototypes can be time-consuming. You'll want your prototype to be as close to the final product as possible, and that can take time. 

Designers and product managers should go through other design stages before creating a prototype. This ensures they aren't wasting resources on a prototype that doesn't meet stakeholders' needs. 

If the prototype doesn't mimic the final product closely enough, it could be misleading and cause issues in the final development phase. 

The differences between wireframing and prototyping

  • Wireframing is best at the start of the design process; prototyping is better at the end.

  • Wireframing has little or no interactivity; prototypes have a high degree of interaction. 

  • Creating a wireframe shouldn't take long; creating a prototype can require time and effort. 

  • Wireframes are a foundation for the design; prototypes are better for collecting feedback on the final design. 

  • Wireframing has little detail and gives a high-level view of layout and design; prototyping has a lot of detail and mimics the final look and feel of the product.

Comparing wireframes and prototypes to mockups

There’s a considerable design gap between a wireframe and a prototype. A mockup is the middle ground between the two. 

Where you would use wireframes in the beginning and prototypes in the late design stage, you'd use a mockup with a medium level of detail in the middle of the design phase.

It's a good way to check the design’s aesthetics before incorporating usability elements. Mockups include visual elements like fonts, color schemes, and images but don't have the usability you typically find in a prototype. 

Mockups are great for evaluating a product’s visual design and gathering aesthetic feedback from stakeholders. It allows designers and product managers to make any necessary visual changes before moving on to the prototyping phase. 

FAQs

What is the difference between prototype and visual design?

A prototype represents a final product. It could include realistic design elements and usability so stakeholders can give feedback on the final design before production or publication.

Visual design refers to the aesthetics of a product, like the fonts, colors, images, and layout of the product. The aim is to create something visually appealing to the target audience. Designers consider visual design throughout the design process, from wireframing to prototyping. 

What is the difference between a wireframe and a high-fidelity prototype?

Wireframes are sometimes called low-fidelity designs or lo-fi designs. Low-fidelity means it is simple and lacks detail. Designers typically use lo-fi designs in the early design stages. 

The opposite of a lo-fi design is a high-fidelity or hi-fi design. High-fidelity designs have a great deal of detail and are fairly sophisticated. 

Prototypes are an example of a high-fidelity design. High-fidelity prototypes will closely mimic a product’s final look. 

The hi-fi design allows stakeholders to give feedback on the final design before production. 

What is the difference between a wireframe and a card prototype?

Wireframes are static visual representations of a design, giving a fundamental overview. Card prototypes are another basic overview of the design, but they often give slightly more detail about the design and focus on the

Common in website design, card prototypes represent different product sections using individual cards or screens. The card might have placeholders for images, copy, and interactive elements. 

can move through the cards to simulate real-world interactions. Going through the design card by card can help stakeholders think about the usability of a product without the time and expense of a prototype. 

What is the difference between a storyboard and wireframe vs a prototype?

Where wireframes and prototypes focus on the visual design of a product, storyboards focus more on the user experience. 

A product’s storyboard might show the interactions and events a user will experience as they navigate the product. You can use storyboards alongside a wireframe, mockup, or prototype to represent the user journey and ensure a positive user experience. 

It can help stakeholders catch usability errors before the prototype or release. The storyboard may evolve alongside the design as it and the user experience change. 

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