Wireframe VS Prototype: What’s the Difference? (with Examples and Tools)
Both wireframing and prototyping are an important part of the design process, however, they aren’t interchangeable. Each serves a distinctive role and represents a different stage of the design flow. In case you might find the terminology a little bit confusing and wish to clear things out, you’re in the right place. In this article, we will talk about wireframe vs prototype and explain the differences. We’ll also include the current most popular tools amongst UI/UX designers and point out their strengths and weaknesses.
Wireframe VS Prototype: Overview
Before we get to the wireframes and prototypes, it’s important to outline the four main steps of product design creation that these phases are part of. This will give you the bigger picture of the process.
- Sketching: The first stage is the designer’s brainstorming session that consists of freehand drawing on a piece of paper or on the canvas of your digital tool of choice. Sketches are not wireframes. They simply serve to illustrate the interface concept and give its basic outline. Details and specifics aren’t important during this stage of design.
- Wireframing: The low-fidelity skeleton for your design that outlines only the essential UI.
- Mockuping: The mid to high-fidelity design visualization. They serve to communicate the visual look for evaluation. During this phase, it’s suitable to experiment with styles, ensure consistency, improve accessibility and present your design to stakeholders.
- Prototyping: The high-fidelity working model of the final product. The key here is that prototypes are always interactive and serve as a simulation.
What is Wireframing?
When it comes to the main difference between wireframes and prototypes, we’re talking about fidelity. This means how closely the mockup gets to the final product. Wireframes are low-fidelity artifacts that serve to present the information that will be displayed on the page later. Unlike sketches that quickly illustrate the concept with a pen or a pencil, wireframes present the concept in more detail with a black and white layout of elements.
As they simply give the outline structure and the basic layout, they also describe interaction results as comments but do not perform any actual website function. They are always static.
In the image below, you will see an example of sketches turned into wireframes. While the sketches are hand-drawn pencil outlines that show the place of the main elements for each screen, the wireframes are much cleaner and better-structured blueprints. They give us more visual information for the UI.
Wireframes are low to medium fidelity and they use a grayscale color scheme, lines, and boxes to communicate the interactions and behavior without worrying about the look and feel of the final product.
For example, the UI/UX designer uses wireframes to show the navigation flow between different screens and the core structure of the website or application.
The Benefits of Wireframing
- Fast, cheap, and easy to make
- Easy for stakeholders to visualize and understand
- They focus on the bigger picture
- Quick for approval
What is Prototyping?
The main difference when we compare wireframe vs prototype is that the prototype represents the relatively functional model of the final product. Prototypes are medium to high fidelity artifacts that allow users to test the interface, interactions, and animations and get a clear view of what the final product will look like.
If wireframes form the skeleton of the digital product, then prototypes form the body. They are not the final version, but depending on how many details the designer includes, they can be really close. Usually, prototypes offer a detailed look at the visual attributes and some of the main interactions with working clickable elements. In other cases, designers may use prototypes only to demonstrate certain interactions. There are two types:
- Low-fidelity Prototypes: They can be static or interactive and serve to test the user flow and generate feedback.
- High-Fidelity Prototypes: They include content, color and mimic a fully functioning and coded product.
For example, the image below demonstrates a working low-fidelity prototype for cinema snack-ordering interaction. The stakeholders could clearly see they can click a movie title, screening time, and seat before ordering.
The Benefits of Prototyping:
- Gives a realistic idea of the final product
- Allow user flow testing before pushing the product to its development stage
- Visualizes interactions and animation
- Generates accurate feedback and makes sure everyone is on the same page
5 Most Popular Wireframing and Prototyping Tools
With the main differences between wireframe vs prototype out of the way, let’s go straight to the most popular tool amongst UI/UX designers.
1. Adobe XD
Starting with Adobe XD, this tool for wireframing, prototyping, and collaboration is vector-based. It’s part of the Adobe Cloud which gives it a huge advantage. This means it works with files from Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects. Furthermore, the subscription gives you access to Adobe Fonts and Adobe Stock from the same account. Adobe XD works both offline and online for further flexibility.
- Good for wireframing and prototyping at any level of fidelity
- Auto Animate tool for advanced animations in one click
- Layering images in 3D
- Allows linking one page to another with plenty of animation templates, as well as multiple artboards in a single project
- No real-time collaboration
- The mobile preview feature doesn’t support Android
Figma is an extremely fast intuitive cloud-based tool ideal for collaboration with multiple teams. One of the most favorite features amongst UI/UX designers is the online whiteboard FIGJAM for brainstorming, online presentations, creating diagrams, sitemaps, and team collab.
- Diverse tools for creating wireframes and prototypes from low-to-high fidelity
- Auto Layout property that lets you create designs that grow to fit or shrink-to-fit as content changes
- Figma Smart Animate for animating layers between frames
- Permission-based sharing of files
- Online only
- No global colors in its module, which can make it difficult to customize a file
- Runs only a RAM system above 4GB with a high-quality graphics card
👉 In case you’re trying to decide between Figma and Adobe XD, you can find out which of those tools is right for you in our comparative Figma vs Adobe XD review. The comparison is based on factors such as pricing, performance, collaboration, functionalities, and special features.
InVision is another very popular amongst UI/UX designers tool where you can upload static screenshots and make them into clickable interactive prototypes. It’s a browser-based application and ideal for collaboration between different stakeholders.
- Tools for wireframing and interactive prototypes
- Project management for designers
- Real-time design meetings
- Live demos
- Versions history
- Expensive for teams
- No real-time editing
- Not incorporated. You need to import your work from InVision Studio (only on Windows and Mac) to other design tools.
- Possible issues with integration
An AIO platform for creating wireframes and high-fidelity interactive prototypes from scratch. It has a drag-and-drop interface, pre-made templates to start with, and tools for animations, interactions, parallaxes, and supports real-time collaboration.
- Tools for wireframing and prototyping feature-rich mobile and web products
- A rich gallery of pre-made templates that are easy to work with
- Ability to add the Hotspot feature
- A steeper learning curve for prototyping in comparison to other tools
- It can become expensive in the long run
- Needs more tutorials
Unlike the other tools we mentioned, Balsamiq is specialized in designing sketches, wireframes, and mockups. It’s cloud-based, very easy to use, and offers a large widget library.
- Fast and easy to create mockups
- Modifications and rapid changes can be done easily
- Limited options for collaboration
- Doesn’t support interactive prototyping
To sum things up, the main difference between wireframes and prototypes refers to how closely the mockup gets to the final product. With wireframing, you produce the outline structure and the basic layout with the navigation flow between different screens. They are always static. Prototypes, on the other hand, depending on their fidelity, allow users to test the interface, interactions, and animations and get a clear view of what the final product will look like. They are clickable and interactive.
In the meantime, why not check for more related insights on web development and web design?
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