Wireframe 101: The Complete Guide To Wireframing

Wireframe 101_ The Complete Guide To Wireframing - MediaOne Marketing

New to wireframing? This guide is all you need to get started.

Every web design project starts with a blank canvas, a vague idea of what you want to create, and a rush of excitement.

Wireframing is the first step in any web design project, and it can feel overwhelming if you’ve never done it before. But don’t worry — with this guide, you’ll have everything you need to wireframe like a pro.

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What’s a Wireframe?

Wireframing is the process of creating a basic outline or blueprint of your website, app, or other digital product. It’s one of the first steps in the design and development process, allowing you to visualize your final product before any coding or development work begins.

A wireframe is essentially a sketch of a webpage or app screen, with placeholders for text, images, buttons, and other interactive elements. It doesn’t include any final design decisions — just the structure and basic layout of your product.

Why Wireframe?

Web designers use wireframes as the primary visual guide to plan and suggest the layout of the fundamental elements in a web interface or product design.

It allows web designers to define information hierarchy, create a page’s visual hierarchy, and make early decisions about the content featured on a web page or app.

It doesn’t necessarily have to go into details — no logo, fonts, graphics, colors, or other design elements — just the basic layout and content.

There are plenty of benefits to using wireframes when building your website, app, or digital product. 

Here are the three main reasons:

  • Determine Features and Functionality: Wireframes are an excellent way to determine what functionality and features your site or app will have before you start building it. That should help you figure out how to make it, too.
  • Easier Communication and Collaboration. Wireframes make collaboration between different members of a project team much more straightforward. By creating a shared language and visual definition of the product, all the collaborating members will have something to refer to when discussing the product.
  • Pinpoint Potential User Experience Problems. Wireframes also make it easier to spot any potential usability issues early on. Using wireframes, you can identify and correct these problems before they spiral out of control and become expensive to fix.
  • Develop the Layout and Element Placement. Wireframing allows you to plan your layout and finalize element placement before building your product. Changing something on a wireframe is easier than once you’ve started building it.
  • Make Content Decisions Early On. Wireframes allow you to make content decisions early in the process before development starts. Having your content and functionality planned out in a wireframe will give you an overall idea of its spacing and sizing.

How Does Wireframing Work?

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Wireframes are to web design what blueprints are to construction. They’re a visual representation of how the website or app will look and function when it’s complete.

Wireframing helps you think through the initial design of your website, app, or product.

  • Not Using Colour: Instead of using colours to distinguish items, use different grey tones, line weights, and symbols to differentiate between items.
  • Using Few Shapes: Make your wireframes as simplistic as possible by using basic shapes like rectangles and ovals.
  • Not Using Typefaces: Typefaces aren’t part of the wireframe design and usually have no place on a wireframe. Remember, your goal is to keep things simple. You’re, however, allowed to resize your font to indicate various header types, but that’s it.
  • Sticking with One Generic Font: Again, don’t overcomplicate things using different fonts. Just choose one generic font and keep the typography simple.
  • Using Simple Icons: Use the most basic icons to illustrate how content will be laid out, placed, and presented.

Since wireframes are two-dimensional, they can’t show interactive interfaces like drop-down menus, auto-rotating carousels, accordions, hover states, and scrolling.

Although wireframes differ from site to site, most of them have similar elements, such as:

  • Logo and Site Name: Your logo and site name are displayed at the top of your wireframe. Sometimes, this is also where the navigation bar or site map will be.
  • Primary Call to Action: Your call to action is usually a button or link that tells the user what’s next. For example, if your site allows users to log in, the login button would be your primary call to action.
  • Search Field: Include a search field if your site allows users to search for information.
  • Breadcrumb: A breadcrumb is a navigational widget that tells users where they are in the site’s hierarchy.
  • Navigation System (local and global navigation): The navigation bar is often placed below the logo and site name. This widget will change depending on whether you use a global or local navigation system.
  • Body Content: The rest of your site comprises body content. That could be anything from blog posts, ebooks, or articles.
  • Share Button: If you want users to share your content, include a button that they can click to do so.
  • Contact Information: Your contact information is usually found around your site’s footer.
  • Footer: Most wireframe designs have a footer that displays copyright information, social media icons, and contact information.

Types of Wireframes

The Complete Guide To Wireframing - MediaOne Marketing

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Wireframes are classified into 3, low-fidelity, medium-fidelity, and high-fidelity wireframes. While low and medium fidelity can be done on paper, high-fidelity wireframes are usually created on a computer with specialized software.

Low Fidelity

The classic paper wireframe is the simplest form of wireframe, hence the most popular. Most designers use this form of fidelity to quickly express their ideas and experiment with different drafts to see what works or what doesn’t. 

Low-fidelity wireframes are perfect for:

  • Quick, rough sketches of an idea.
  • Demonstrating different iterations of a design.
  • Mocking up wireframes on paper before drawing them in a digital interface.

But if you want to add more details to your wireframe, you’re better off using a higher-fidelity wireframe.

Medium Fidelity

A medium-fidelity wireframe is a detailed sketch of your site’s design. While they may lack the details such as images, font styles, or colour schemes, they’re an improved version of a low-fidelity wireframe.

They give better artboard outlines, often come with grids for alignment, and have a little more detail than hand-drawn wireframes.

Medium fidelity wireframes are perfect for:

  • Demonstrating changes to a design.
  • Prototyping user flows and interactions.

High Fidelity

A high-fidelity wireframe is a medium-fidelity wireframe with more details. They’re detailed, editable, and can be used for usability testing.

They closely match the final design of your product, allowing you to effectively communicate your site’s visual appearance.

They’re intended to show essential UI elements, content, fonts, and colours as used in the final product.

You’ll need a wireframing design tool such as Adobe XD, Sketch, Figma, InVision Studio, or Proto.io to create high-fidelity wireframes.

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High-fidelity wireframes are perfect for:

  • Presenting the final design to stakeholders
  • Usability testing with real users
  • Creating a more realistic demo of the final product
  • Using High-Fidelity Wireframes to Build Clickable Prototypes
  • When you need to handoff your design to developers

Before Wireframing a Design: Things to Consider

While a high-fidelity wireframe is a more accurate representation of the final design, you don’t have to go all-in on the details.

However, it has many calculated components, with well-defined spaces, layouts, and text. It considers visual hierarchy, user experience, typography, and information architecture.

However, you still have room for a bit of iteration before the design is finalized. Here are some things to consider before wireframing your design:

1. Gather Project Requirements

You have to begin by gathering all the necessary project details, including your target audience, business objectives, and the goal of your project.

Be sure to define your project’s scope and ensure that it meets all the requirements.

You first have to define the scope of your product, as well as the target audience and objectives.

You must also research similar products and work on your unique value proposition. See what your competition is doing, and carve out your own unique path.

Once you have a well-thought-out plan, you’re ready to begin wireframing.

You should not just draw any layout that comes to mind. Though you should be open to new ideas, it’s crucial that you also plan your wireframe carefully.

Work with the details you have, and ensure that all the elements fit cohesively together.

2. List Out the Inventory

By inventory, we mean a list of all the things the app or website should have.

For example, if you’re designing a website, it should have the following: 

  • A home page with content that introduces your brand and what you offer.
  • A product page describing your products in more detail and has features users can click to learn more about.
  • A shopping cart where users can add or remove products.
  • A checkout page allows users to pay for their order and enter billing/shipping information.
  • A contact page with a form that users can fill out to get in touch with you.
  • An FAQ section where users can find answers to common questions.

Keep this list of components open and revisit it as you work on your wireframe. 

You want to be as granular as possible with the checklist so you don’t miss any crucial details.

Every item or component you deem necessary should be included in the wireframe.

Then you want to go through the list one by one and organize them in a way that makes sense.

For example, your product page could be located under the products section of your website, while your FAQ section is under the ‘help’ tab.

3. Do A little Bit of User Research

Your target audience should be the focus of your wireframe. They should goad all your decisions and be the main driving force behind your design.

Before you begin wireframing anything, do a bit of user research.

Talk to your target audience, create a survey, and study their behavior.

Find out what they want from your app or website and their expectations.

Be sure to pay attention to the common pain points your users face, the tasks they have difficulty completing, and the areas lacking.

With this information, you can build a wireframe that meets their needs and expectations and solves their problems.

For example, if you’re designing a new banking app, you want to keep their specific needs and requirements in mind.

You might want to include a way that users can check their balances, set up recurring payments, or transfer money between accounts.

Even more important, allow them to link other accounts so that they can view all their finances in one place.

In other words, you want to ensure your design is tailor-made for your target audience. 

4. Map Out the Information Architecture of Your App or Website

After research, the next step will be to map out the information architecture of your app or website.

You have to define how each component or section relates to the other and, most importantly, how they should be organized on a page.

Think about the different tasks your users will perform, and create a flow that helps them complete them as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The navigation patterns you come up with don’t have to be final or perfect. Instead, work out the pathways users use to get around the product. The idea is to visualize the different routes you can take to complete a task.

You may also want to look into other information architecture tools, like card sorting and site maps. These can help you dive deeper into how your app or website should be organized and structured.

Remember, there isn’t a one-size fits all approach to information architecture. How you organize your content and the navigation patterns you create will depend on the type of app or website, who it’s for, and what they want to achieve.

Ultimately, your wireframe should make it easy for users to find what they’re looking for and understand how to complete their tasks. 

However, most designers often go for a mix of the following:

Hierarchical Structures: With this structure, you start with broad and most important categories at the top and then narrow down to smaller types in a trickle-down effect. Also known as tree structures, these are great for presenting data that needs to be ordered and browsing and filtering.

Here’s how you create hierarchical structures:

  • Start with an idea of what the main categories are.
  • Group those main categories into subcategories based on commonalities.
  • Once you have your subcategories, give them their own list or structure containing member pages and content.

Matrix Structures: This type is similar to a spreadsheet because it contains rows and columns. It’s ideal when you want to show relationships between many variables at once. 

It creates a connection between features and content, allowing users to navigate between them the way they see fit. 

By contrast, the hierarchical structure creates a linear path from one point to another.

The downside is that this structure is super-complex to design and may overwhelm the user by presenting them with too many options.

To create a matrix structure:

  • Start with an idea of the content and features you want to show. Then, create a table with one column representing each feature or piece of content and multiple rows defining relationships between them. 
  • You can visualize this as simple as a set of menus or grouping things by department/type.

Radial Structure: With this structure, you can achieve infinite levels by adding more layers on top of an existing structure. It’s best suited for showing relationships that are circular or repeating. Adding more layers can also turn the radial structure into a hierarchical or matrix structure.

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It shows how each content or feature is connected to another but is also significant enough to stand independently. 

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The main drawback with this type of information architecture is it can be difficult for the user to find their way back to where they came from.

To create a radial structure: 

  • Start by defining the main areas of your app, website, or product. 
  • Then, work on the relationships between these areas and how they connect. You can illustrate each area as a circle or sphere and then connect them differently to create the overall structure.

Sequential Structures: With this structure, you linearly present information and content. It’s most commonly used when users need to follow one task or process from start to finish.

The downside is that it can be challenging to track where the user is in their journey and may create too many layers for complex topics.

These structures create narrow paths that restrict the choices available to users, allowing them to focus on their end goal. 

To create a sequential structure:

  • Start by defining the steps in your content or process flow. 
  • Then, organize them into lists as you would with hierarchical structures to present information clearly and sequentially. 

Note that you’re not limited to just one of these structures. You can also combine and use them differently to create a more complex and user-friendly information architecture for your users. 

Mixing different content pieces and expecting users to sort them out blindly is a bad practice. You have to test your categories on real users and improve them as you go based on their feedback.

A simple hack around this is to use card sorting. In this exercise, you physically put your cards in different piles and ask users to group them. You can then use their responses to define your categories before going deep into the design phase.

Note: this wireframing phase is important when your product holds massive content and features. It’s also useful for complex websites, apps, and products where you must present information hierarchically or sequentially. 

5. Sketch Out Your Ideas on Paper

Once you know the information architecture for your product, it’s time to sketch it out. 

The idea is to get your ideas down on paper before moving them over to digital tools like wireframes or prototypes.

Why is this wireframing phase necessary?

  • First, it lets you get your ideas out and quickly organize your content structure. 
  • Second, it helps you think about how users will interact with your product and what kind of experience they’ll have to navigate through it. 
  • Third, you can use these sketches as a reference during the next stage of the design process: wireframing. 
  • Finally, it allows you to compare different ideas, collaborate with your team, and test them on users to see which works best.

How do you go about sketching out the information architecture?

There’s no right or wrong way here. The idea is to get your ideas down on paper so you can easily visualize how everything will come together.

You can use boxes or circles to represent your content, organize them in a tree-like structure, or even use mind maps for more complex topics. 

How to Design a Wireframe, Step-by-Step Guide

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It’s true — there’s no right or wrong way to design a wireframe.

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But there’s a definite process to be followed, each step building upon the previous step.

Let’s break it down into a simple 7-step guide:

Step 1: Wireframing the UI of Each Screen

The first step in wireframing is to define the UI of each screen – mobile, desktop, tablet, etc.  

That means looking at all your content pieces, defining where they’ll go, and sketching out how everything will fit together.

We suggest you keep things simple at first, using just rectangles or squares to represent content blocks and columns. 

That will allow you to focus on the function of each screen and not get bogged down in figuring out exact layout details.

It’s OK if things aren’t aligned properly or there are some gaps; you can work those out as you move into the next stage of wireframing.

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Here are some of the wireframe UI kits you can work with:

A Sketch-style UI Kit: These are meant to reflect the basic style of handwriting sketches. They’re not meant to be simple or look like wireframes but rather provide you with a familiar visual language around which you can create your own UI elements.

A Classic Web Wireframing UI Kit: This UI kit maintains the same simplicity designers use to focus on the functional side of things. They’re slightly more formal, focusing on wire-like shapes and lines.

A Mobile Wireframing UI Kit: You can also choose a mobile UI kit that reflects the look and feel of native apps. It might be a good choice if you’re designing for mobile, as it will provide you with many elements you’ll need to create great-looking mobile apps.

Step 2: Add the Right Amount of Visual Design

Now that you’ve defined the structure for each screen, it’s time to add visual design.

Ultimately, wireframes are meant to be simple yet functional. 

They help you specify how a product will work, not look. That’s why it’s best to keep your visual elements at this stage to a minimum – just enough so users have something concrete to interact with while they test out your wireframes or prototypes.

It might mean adding text details and sketching photos you want to use on each screen. 

But it’s best to hold off on more elaborate visual design elements until later in the process. Adding too much detail here can muddy up your wireframes and make you lose focus on the important user experience goals.

Step 3: Add in Interactions and Navigation

Once you’ve defined your wireframes’ structure and visual design, it’s time to add interactions and navigation. 

It’s where you’ll be able to test the functionality, see how information flows from one screen to the next, and get a sense of the overall user experience. 

You can use functional components like buttons that trigger an action or create more elaborate interactions that respond to changes in user input. 

That will ultimately help you identify areas where you need to go back and tweak things, ironing out any bugs and smoothing out the flow.

About the Author

Tom Koh

Tom is the CEO and Principal Consultant of MediaOne, a leading digital marketing agency. He has consulted for MNCs like Canon, Maybank, Capitaland, SingTel, ST Engineering, WWF, Cambridge University, as well as Government organisations like Enterprise Singapore, Ministry of Law, National Galleries, NTUC, e2i, SingHealth. His articles are published and referenced in CNA, Straits Times, MoneyFM, Financial Times, Yahoo! Finance, Hubspot, Zendesk, CIO Advisor.


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