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An introduction to wireframes: your first step to great UI design

The more time you spend creating a wireframe—a skeleton of your future product—the fewer problems you’ll face during the actual design and development processes. It’s also your first step toward creating an excellent user interface (UI).

But as you get down to wireframing for the first time, it can be challenging, especially with all the different kinds of wireframes and confusing terminology, to know where to start. 

Last updated

6 Feb 2023

Reading time

8 min


This article walks you through everything you need to know to design your first wireframe—collaboratively or on your own—from understanding the different types of wireframes, to choosing a wireframing tool, to overcoming obstacles along the way.

Validate your wireframe with user insights

Collect real customer insights with Hotjar to discover what your end-users really want to see in your product’s UI.

What is a wireframe?

A wireframe is a schematic illustration of your future product’s features and navigation. 

It typically consists of boxes and lines representing the structure of the product's pages, content areas, and interactive elements. Wireframes provide a visual representation of the product functionality and how the user will interact with it.

Say you want to sell language learning courses through an app. You’ll create a wireframe to sketch the main screens and functions, show it to stakeholders and a focus group, and see if you’re missing any critical elements before you assign the task to developers. For example, you may discover the wireframe lacks a progress-tracking feature and add it before it’s too late (or expensive) to make changes to the project.

#An example of a wireframe
An example of a wireframe

Wireframes don’t include too much detail. Otherwise, it would be hard to focus on the fundamental components that form your future user interface design, namely:

  • Features: decide what exactly your app should do

  • Screens: outline how different elements, like menus, buttons, and other content will be placed on the page

  • Intended behaviors: specify how users will interact with the product elements

When you approve these components with stakeholders, you can move on to designing a more sophisticated rendering of the product, which is a mockup.

What a wireframe isn’t: wireframe vs. mockup

To truly understand what a wireframe is, you also need to understand what it is not. You may easily confuse a wireframe with a mockup, which also fits the definition of “a schematic illustration of a future product’s features and navigation.” So what’s the difference between the two?

A wireframe is a skeleton model that product teams create in the first phase of product development.

Once you outline your product’s functionality and intended user behaviors (e.g. where a user should click to save their progress), you send over your wireframe to designers for further development of your app or website—in other words, to create a mockup.

A mockup is a high-fidelity representation of your future product, complete with design elements that create a realistic product appearance.

While a wireframe helps validate ideas, a mockup focuses on outlining fine details, like visuals, fonts, and texts.

Wireframes are typically used early in the design process to establish the overall structure and layout of a website or application. Mockups, on the other hand, are used later in the design process to give a more accurate representation of the final deliverable's appearance.

John Stephenson
Lead Visual Designer, Facilio

4 benefits of wireframing

Wireframing is the first step in UX development, and it defines the success of your entire project. Here are four reasons you shouldn’t skip wireframing:

1. Test new ideas (painlessly)

Say you have a product idea—should you act on it right away? Definitely not. Investing time and money into your idea without validating it with users and stakeholders first would be a path that leads nowhere, fast. 

Wireframing helps you formulate your design idea, communicate it to the teams involved in its realization, and validate it with your customers. 

💡Pro tip: when you have a basic representation of your future product, schedule a call with one of your potential users and go over your wireframe with them. Explain what your app should do and how the user flows will look to get early feedback on your product idea.

Hotjar lets you conduct interviews to ask customers what they think about your wireframe

2. Map out product navigation 

Wireframing helps designers, product owners, and stakeholders map out the structure of a product and test its logic before investing in a full-scale visual design or development.

In this stage, you’ll use all the customer data you have (e.g. customer surveys and persona analysis) to create the first user flows and iterate on them until you and your test users are happy with the result. This is where you may discover you need to add pages or navigation elements before you send your wireframe to the design team.

3. Deliver your end product faster

Although wireframing may seem to add an extra task to your team's backlog, it’s a huge time and money saver. Breaking the process into smaller steps allows you to approach the design process more strategically, so you eliminate wrong choices and avoid costly reworks. 

With a well-thought-out wireframe, you’ll make the right design decisions, set realistic deadlines, and deliver your end product on time.

4. Improve the product experience (PX)

Finally, a wireframe is the first sketch of your product you can show to end users to discover what they think of it. 

With a high-fidelity wireframe, you can collect honest feedback and identify usability issues early. These insights help your product team understand what users like and dislike about your product to create an app that delivers an excellent product experience.

Pro tip: you don’t need to wait before you have a working UI to test your product experience. Integrate Hotjar with your UI design tool, like Figma, and see how users interact with a preliminary model of your product.

The 3 types of wireframes

Before you’re ready to design a mockup, your wireframe will go through several revisions and iterations and evolve from a handwritten, low-fidelity version into a high-fidelity rendering.

1. Low-fidelity

A low-fidelity wireframe is a simple sketch of basic UI elements of an app or web page. It outlines the main screens of your product, usually with the help of placeholders, like boxes with an X through them.

For example, a low-fidelity wireframe of a future language-learning app could be a handwritten sketch of the key content categories, like video lessons, dictionaries, certifications, and their placement.

Low-fidelity wireframes are often better when we aim for more innovation-focused vs. optimization-focused experiments.

By providing more room for the designers, we encourage higher participation from the most creative minds on the team. This diversity of views can help find the breakthroughs in experimentation programs that would have otherwise stalled.

Kamil Jakubczyk
Growth Manager, Contractbook

2. Mid-fidelity

A mid-fidelity wireframe is a slightly more sophisticated rendering of the product. As you iterate on the first version of your wireframe, you’ll spot opportunities to improve user flows and realize your ideas in a mid-fidelity wireframe.

For example, a mid-fidelity wireframe for a language-learning app would include key user flows, like what a user should do to start the course and what happens on the screen once they do it.

3. High-fidelity

A high-fidelity wireframe is a more realistic representation of the product’s design and functionality. It’s a transition phase between a wireframe and a mockup.

Alongside major functionality, it may already include a hierarchy, colors, icons, and other UI elements. To create a high-fidelity wireframe, you need a UI design tool and, preferably, an experienced designer.

For example, when you create a high-fidelity wireframe of a language-learning app, it would include real content, like video lesson covers and texts, colors, and pixel-specific layouts.

Pro tip: there’s a lot of confusion about wireframe classification. If you search the web, you’ll see that when defining a wireframe, designers often refer to a low-fidelity representation of a future product that the development process starts with. The other types of wireframes that UI professionals name ‘mid-fidelity wireframes’ and ‘high-fidelity wireframes’ are nothing but mockups and prototypes respectively. 

Whatever terminology you decide to stick to, make sure everyone on your team speaks one language.

A quick overview of wireframe design tools

You may start by simply sketching on paper, but you’ll inevitably need a UI design tool as your wireframe gets more complex. 

We've rounded up the top three wireframing tools to help you begin with your first design and get your team members on board:

  1. Figma is a web-based wireframing platform for cross-functional collaboration. It’s an optimal solution for product teams looking for a tool to design and collaborate on the product’s UI in one place.

  2. Justinmind is an easy-to-use, no-code prototyping tool for Windows and Mac. The tool helps both UI experts and non-tech-savvy professionals create realistic product experiences.

  3. Lucidchart is a web-based diagramming app that enables product teams to create schematic wireframes together. From basic sketches to interactive designs, Lucidchart lets teams create projects from scratch or build upon customizable templates.

Pro tip: add Hotjar to your tech stack to discover what your end-users expect from your product before you actually build it. Show your high-fidelity wireframes to a focus group and ask them to share their feedback to validate your ideas (or discard them).

4 complications of wireframing

If you don’t get wireframing right, it may cost you a lot of time and money. Before you start, make sure to address the following obstacles:

1. Miscommunication between teams

A lack of clear communication and direction between teams is one of the biggest roadblocks to creating a good wireframe.

It’s typical for different teams to have different visions of the project’s direction—but if you do nothing to address it, developers, designers, and other stakeholders will be sending the wireframe back and forth, failing to align on its purpose and features. 

How to overcome it: before you begin the wireframing process, establish a shared understanding of the product’s vision and user needs with your team. Create documentation where you keep insights on your customer personas, their pain points, and your product’s goals.

Regular check-ins and clear communication can help mitigate this problem by making sure that all parties are aligned and any issues are identified and resolved promptly.

Logan Mallory

2. Overly detailed specifications

Creating an overly detailed wireframe is the best way to waste your time and money. 

However brilliant your idea is, you will need to adjust it after you document and present your rough vision of the future product. If your wireframe includes too many details, it’s not only hard for you to focus on the most important components but also incredibly time-consuming to make changes to the design.

How to overcome it: keep your wireframe simple and obvious. Don’t rush into designing a mockup complete with images, fonts, and colors before you approve the key workflows and screens.

The issues with wireframes occur more when they are too detailed rather than too vague. The best example is the movie business. You don’t start talking about a beautiful camera angle before the story’s not written. The same relates to the software industry. You want to move things around quickly in the beginning, and if your wireframing limits that, it’s bad.

Jannis Habbe-Dalsgaard
Product Designer, Timeular

3. Hard to present ideas to stakeholders

A very abstract wireframe is the other side of the coin. A lack of clarity prevents internal stakeholders from effectively evaluating your design skeleton and leads to numerous questions and meetings that you could very well avoid.

How to overcome it: add annotations to your design if you work with colleagues outside the design team. Use a collaborative tool, like Justinmind, so stakeholders can ask questions and make suggestions through a shared interface.

4. Failing to collect feedback from end-users

It’s hard to find beta users who’ll be happy to spend their time looking through your product’s visualizations and sharing their input with you. And without their feedback, you’ll have to build the entire product’s architecture based on your and your team’s feelings and assumptions, and not on your end-users’ pain points.

How to overcome it: interview a focus group made up of innovators who’ll later receive perks, like a gift card, to test your product and give you feedback in the first cohort. If you have no audience yet, you can do this by establishing a website first and inviting beta users through it, or by finding leads on social media and reaching out to them proactively. When you have your beta users on board, use Hotjar Engage to easily schedule, run, record, and share user interviews.

Wireframe your product to move forward with confidence

Wireframing is the best way to present your ideas to your team and get your product design off to a good start. It’s also where you collect the first feedback on your product’s functionality and usability from your future users, so you can validate your product vision. 

Start with a pen and paper and sketch your first wireframe by hand. As you get input from stakeholders and customers, you’ll be able to build a more complex wireframe that evolves into a mockup with the help of experienced designers.

FAQs about wireframing

Validate your wireframe with user insights

Collect real customer insights with Hotjar to discover what your end-users really want to see in your product’s UI.