Wireframing is dead? Long live wireframes!

Wireframes, basic black-and-white blueprints of web pages, were the great promise of the last decade. Be gone, old-school 1990s PRINCE2 functional specs! Wireframes were fit for a new age: an age of rapid development and iterative product releases. They communicated a user experience directly into your client’s head, into your developer’s coding fingers, and into your designer’s right brain. They were the great white hope, the saviour…

But then the bubble burst. The hope was torn away from the collective outstretched arms of the UX industry as wireframes were apparently exposed as being just as weak and pointless as all the documentation that came before.

Critics claim they’ve had their day, replaced by more ‘progressive’ techniques like prototyping and content requirements documents. Even Google agrees (see below).

Google WireframingBut is wireframing really dead? Well, I don’t think so — no.

What we’ve learned over the last couple of years of reflection and refinement in the Code UX team is that wireframes (and also prototypes, sketches, function specs or scrawls on the back of a napkin) are nothing more than one of many tools in our UX shed — and like any tool they can be used badly, or used well.

Our job as UX professionals is simple: we collaborate with the experts in our own teams and our clients’ teams to create an engaging and well-converting user experience, and then we capture and document it so it can be built.

It seems obvious, but we’ve learned that if we don’t collaborate with the rest of our team effectively, and if we don’t actively involve our client stakeholders from the start, then it doesn’t matter whether we use a wireframe, a prototype or a piece of interpretive dance to present the work — the project will never reach it’s potential.

The tools we use to document what we have created together are then, quite simply, chosen for their appropriateness.

The mobile project I’m currently working on for one of our charity clients has a fully interactive low-fi Axure prototype of the key areas, which we took to one of their retail shops for guerilla testing. But it also has simple wireframes for less complex pages, where a prototype would have wasted time and budget. Some areas weren’t even documented at all beyond user stories as we’ll deal with them during development sprints, sketching together as we go.

So if you thought that wireframing was the solution to all your UX problems, then yes, it is dead now but only because it was oversold to start with.

But if you think of it as just one of many techniques at our disposal, then it’s as alive as any other method — we just have to remember that no kind of UX documentation, be it wireframes, prototypes or anything else, are a substitute for a strong team collaborating on a solution.