Are wireframes useless?

Low-fidelity UI’s are no longer a thing… or are they?

In 2018 we came out of a startup experience that was basically a long process of trial and error. We were still a bit naive from our theoretical studies and we hadn’t yet gained much managerial experience. Certain phases of software design still needed to be formalised, particularly the management of wireframes.

In that period we were trying to perfect a workflow that was compatible with our company needs and those of our clients. We used sketches on paper and digital wireframes which preceded the high-fidelity UI design to translate into code.

We wanted to anticipate the clients’ needs, taking them step by step to the UI, trying to intervene as little as possible on the final interface. To do this we wanted to follow the mantra of “content first”.
Completing a software requirements analysis and proposing these visual architectures to the client were two ways of concentrating their attention on functions and information that were truly important, without getting distracted by graphics.

However, we soon understood that something wasn’t working.

Wireframes can subtract value

In the most simple projects in-depth digital wireframing was not necessary: the usual company websites or the small applications with few interfaces and limited budgets don’t usually have critical grey areas to look into before passing on to the high-fidelity UI. The clients usually only ask for esthetic changes, but the wireframes don’t deal with this aspect. Why spend time designing low-fidelity digital UI when there are tools that manage high-fidelity component libraries which are ready to use and customizable with a few small changes?

Also when dealing with more complex software projects we tried to involve the client in the preliminary design phases, but the management often showed a lack of familiarity with the tool.
The low-fidelity interfaces seemed to confuse them. More summary at times means less clarity and in those situations it was very clear that the wireframes didn’t communicate. The end result was more time wasted, more annoyance on the part of the client and fewer results.
These issues disappeared with the high-fidelity UI, so we understood that the wireframing was weakening the design process rather than strengthening it.

We wondered where the mistake was and put our method in doubt. We removed the digital wireframes from the project, keeping to an initial brainstorming with the help of hand-drawn sketches for internal use and the revision with the client was limited to the high-fidelity UI. We felt it had worked, the workflow improved.

You may now be asking yourself if we were proposing unclear wireframes to the clients because they were done badly or was it the medium itself that doesn’t work? With the change of workflow we didn’t notice significant side effects so, regardless of the answer, it would seem, at least in that situation, that the wireframes were not needed.
Subsequently, upon reading the opinions of other designers, we understood that it is not unusual. Wireframes are not the answer in all contexts.

Wireframes are not essential

When dealing with wireframes the implication is that not using them is an example of negligence in an incomplete workflow. It is made clear what they are, in which phase they are used, what tools and criteria should be used to create them… Our process was fragile because we had skipped an important point: how to use them.

Lee-Jon has written a very interesting article on this topic. It’s really worth reading his thoughts all the way through, but here we will just mention one point regarding the work method.
The author writes: «I love wireframes as a thinking tool, as something I can use to draw an idea out of my head and throw away when it’s no longer useful.»

We started to share this view and today it’s funny to think that, while we were deep in self analysis, there were people like Lee-Jon who had already closed the door on the topic in 2016.

Lee-Jon is not the only one: Robert Goesch of DUMBO has reached similar conclusions. Goesch gives a complete list of what he believes to be the cliches regarding this topic and explains why he abandoned digital wireframes, moving towards a new project design procedure which requires a wider cross-disciplinary vision of the design concept.

 Twitter Tweet by Joe Kennedy about wireframes

Another sceptic: Joe Kennedy, upon entering the work world fresh out of university quickly reached the conclusions that match our experience.
Are wireframes useless?

The debate goes back to the year 2000 and has never really reached a definitive conclusion. Madison Borgmann talks about it in an article of 2018 eloquently entitled: Wireframes aren’t useless, but our approach to wireframing is outdated. There are various approaches and none of them are really wrong as long as they meet the project needs.

Ask yourself what role they have in your design process, how much time to invest without making it a long and useless step (it mustn’t become a hidden cost!).
Ask yourself if there really is a significant problem that can be solved only with this tool. If you dedicate time to creating wireframes just because “they are a part of the workflow”, perhaps you don’t really need them. What happens if you take them out of the pipeline? Due issues arise or do you save time with the same results?

The world is in constant evolution and new solutions to changes in work are being constantly discovered. New challenges, new tools. They have been useful, perhaps today they are no longer useful to everyone, but who knows what the future holds? We have answered this question, but perhaps we don’t have the same answer as you.

Wireframes are useful only if they bring real value to the project. If that is the case, use them wisely, otherwise be ready to do without and not feel too bad about it.

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