The formatting and layout of a webpage will directly contribute to the way in which users process information on your site. You must consider this when designing virtually any page for a website or app.
This is a key reason web development specialists should familiarize themselves with wireframing. Wireframing essentially allows you to plan the basics of a page’s layout before creating the actual page itself. Along with giving you a better sense of how information may be organized on a finished page, a wireframe can also help you more accurately determine how a future user may engage with the eventual interface and it will give you a sense of visitor flow optimization.
A single blog post may not be able to teach you everything you need to know about creating a wireframe for web development. However, if you’re a wireframing beginner, this guide will certainly help you get started.
Understanding how a user will engage with an app or webpage can be challenging when the page is cluttered with such distracting visual elements as colors, branded imagery, and copy. It’s often helpful to eliminate those elements and work with a strictly bare-bones version of a page during the initial stages of development.
That’s essentially what a wireframe is. A wireframe is like an early architectural drawing of a room. It’s typically a black and white depiction of the basic elements on the page based on a chosen layout. Types of elements a wireframe may feature include (but are not necessarily limited to) headers/footers, logos, navigation tools, contact information, and share buttons. Wireframes can also allow for a degree of interactivity, showing how a user may navigate to a different page.
Just remember that, in a wireframe, these elements won’t be nearly as visually-dynamic as they will on a finished page. For example, instead of an actual logo, a wireframe may display a basic square box as a placeholder.
Simplifying a page’s layout in this way helps you identify the strengths and weaknesses of a given layout before actually developing a site or app’s pages. This can save you a lot of time you might otherwise spend designing pages that aren’t as user-friendly as possible. Typically, if a user can’t navigate a simple wireframe version of a page, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to navigate the real page if you use the same layout.
There are a number of tools you and courses you may wish to take advantage of to learn more about getting started with wireframing for web development. However, when you first experiment with wireframing, consider following these steps:
There’s no single page layout that’s universally effective and user-friendly in all contexts. To come up with wireframes for pages you’re developing, get inspiration from current examples.
Maybe you’re developing a page for an online news outlet. You want to determine which type of layout will allow you to display the maximum amount of information to users without overwhelming or confusing them.
You could start by taking a look at similar pages and making a list of those you find to be the most user-friendly. Then, you could break them down into their basic elements by sketching out the essential layout of the pages.
Or, consider saving time with Wirify. This free tool generates wireframe versions of webpages, so you don’t have to sketch them out yourself.
Keep in mind that the example wireframes you study don’t need to dictate every single aspect of your eventual layout choices. In other words, your wireframes don’t need to be perfect mirrors of the examples that most impressed you. Those examples can merely serve as sources of inspiration. You may wish to modify certain layouts to better suit your needs.
Just as there’s no one layout that’s ideal for all pages, there’s no single approach to wireframing that works for everyone. You need to find a process that feels natural to you.
For example, some developers start with basic sketches of their ideas. They then translate those sketches into wireframes. Based on the strength of the wireframes, they may make some minor changes, then begin coding.
Others choose to create high-definition versions of their initial wireframes before coding, allowing them to take a closer look at the way a given layout impacts the user experience. Some developers start with wireframing and skip the sketching stage entirely.
On the other hand, some find wireframes don’t offer much more valuable information than sketches already offer. They may start coding as soon as they’re satisfied with a sketch, perhaps as part of an internal agile software development methodology. Additionally, developers who want a very clear idea of how a finished page will look might use Photoshop or similar tools to create detailed mockups after the wireframing stage but before the coding stage.
Again, none of these approaches are inherently superior. Try them out to find the process you’re most comfortable with. Keep in mind, depending on the complexity of a given project, sometimes you may use a different approach from the one you typically use.
There’s no shortage of tools available to in-house, agency or freelance web developers learning the basics of wireframing. You might consult with your peers to learn about the resources they find most helpful.
That said, the following are a few easy-to-use wireframing tools worth keeping in mind:
Remember, new tools are also constantly emerging. Regularly discuss this topic with other developers to ensure you’re always aware of the latest wireframing resources.
You’re almost ready to create your first wireframe. However, before doing so, it’s a good idea to make a list of the various elements you expect to include on a page. Again, this may include logos, sections for content, images, and more.
Having a thorough list of such elements will make determining where you want to place them in a layout much easier. Once more, no single approach to creating a wireframe is right for everyone, so as you grow more comfortable with your wireframing skills, you may feel you can skip this step. At first, though, it’s a smart way to begin a project. When you have a list of elements, you might also choose to sketch out some basic ideas before bringing them to “life” with a wireframing tool.
The specific way in which you create your first wireframes will depend on the features and interface of the wireframing tool you use. In general, though, creating a wireframe involves arranging extremely simple representations of various elements on a grid.
Emphasis on “extremely simple.” For example, if you were planning on including social share buttons on a page, in the context of a wireframe, you wouldn’t display actual buttons. Instead, small boxes would suffice. Every element of a wireframe needs to generally resemble the final element in terms of size, otherwise you won’t know whether a layout is effective, but in terms of shape, color, and other such visual features, they’ll be generic.
Throughout the wireframing process, you should constantly ask yourself whether a layout can be improved upon. After creating your first drafts, you may decide there are layout changes that need to be made before moving on to the next step. Make those now. Just remember, as you continue with the process, you may decide to make additional changes in the future.
The next step involves adding more detail. When you have a basic sense of a page’s layout, adding certain details can clarify whether the hierarchy of information on a page will ensure a smooth and intuitive user-experience.
There are various types of details you may choose to experiment with at this stage. However, many developers find that it’s helpful to begin experimenting with typography first. Add in sample text to the various parts of a page where text will appear, choosing different fonts and sizes depending on the degree to which you want certain content to stand out. Your goal is to ensure typographical choices guide a user through a page in a manner that allows them to naturally digest important information.
Just remember, you still have the option to change the layout at any stage in the process. Adding more detail may help you identify weaknesses that weren’t as noticeable at first.
A basic wireframe is black-and-white. That said, after adding in some basic detail, developers often find that experimenting with the grayscale is a useful way to explore how effective certain visual elements may be given their chosen layout.
This may not be an option if the wireframe tool you’re using doesn’t offer such features. If it does, however, consider changing visual elements to various shades of gray. This will help you determine how to better emphasize certain elements without using too much color at an early stage.
That said, another optional step at this stage in the process involves creating a high-definition wireframe. Such wireframes include even more details, such as unique fonts and some degree of color.
As always, if you’re learning the basics of wireframing, you may want to give this step a try simply to determine if it’s an approach that helps you, but if you find it’s unnecessary, you can skip it when working on future projects.
This step doesn’t necessarily need to come at this stage in the process. Some find it’s more helpful to move on to this step after first translating their wireframe into a more detailed visual mockup.
Regardless, if you don’t want to waste time creating a visual mockup, only to learn that others find it confusing or less than user-friendly, you might show others your wireframe now.
Showing a wireframe to other developers you trust is a smart idea. Their expertise can help you spot weaknesses that you may have overlooked.
However, it’s important to remember that you’re designing a page an average user will (theoretically) eventually engage with. Thus, you might also want to show your wireframe to people without a development background.
Naturally, because a wireframe is a very simple version of a page, someone reviewing it (or, in the case of interactive wireframes, testing it) might not know exactly what specific types of elements and content the final page will include. That said, a test user should have a general sense of how a layout would affect their experience of a finished product.
Ask those reviewing your wireframe if they believe this page would be easy to navigate, and more importantly, why or why not. Ask them what they think the function or purpose of certain elements might be. Ask them specific questions related to the finished page’s content, such as, “If you wanted to share a piece of content from this page on social media, based on this layout, where do you think you would click to do so?” It simply can’t be stressed enough: if a potential user doesn’t find a wireframe to be intuitive, there’s a good chance they’ll have the same experience when navigating the actual page.
This is another step that you may decide to skip in the future once you’ve determined the ideal approach to wireframing based on your goals and preferences. That said, when you’re learning wireframing, this is a step worth completing.
At this point, you’ll still have the option of making changes to the layout before you begin coding, but you should feel relatively comfortable with your layout by now. If there are any remaining issues, address them first.
Then, begin turning your wireframe into a static version of the finished page, complete with more detailed and dynamic visual elements. Some wireframing tools may offer features designed for this specific purpose. If your tools don’t, you could use Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, or a similar program.
Because you haven’t done any coding yet, there’s a good chance many of the visual elements you include on this mockup won’t perfectly resemble the finished product. Additionally, if you’re working on a project for a client whose business is relatively new, they may not have even made certain decisions about such visual elements as color schemes, logos, and other branded imagery yet. You shouldn’t necessarily expect your visual mockup to be a perfect representation of the eventual page. You should instead treat it as a final “upgraded” version of a wireframe that can once again give you the chance to spot any problems before you start coding.
Even if you’ve already shown people your wireframe, you might also want to show developers and potential users your visual mockups. The more feedback you can get, the better.
You’re ready to start coding once you’re happy with your visual mockups. By the time you reach this stage, you’ll likely appreciate how useful creating wireframes can be. At the very least, you’ll probably work much more efficiently than you typically do.
However, creating a wireframe isn’t a “silver bullet” guaranteeing the final page will be perfect. This is particularly true if you’re new to wireframing. If the finished product doesn’t meet your expectations, don’t dismiss wireframing entirely. Wireframing is like any other web development task: the more you practice, the more you’ll build your skills.
While following the steps described above will help you learn the basics of wireframing, as you experiment with wireframes, you may also want to keep these tips in mind:
Developers who sketch out their ideas before creating wireframes do so because it’s an easy way to get a very basic sense of whether an idea is strong enough to pursue.
That said, actually sketching your ideas isn’t your only option. There are actually many ways to create preliminary wireframes. You may find some more appealing than others.
For example, perhaps you’re collaborating on a project with a number of team members. Before starting to wireframe, you might share page layout ideas with each other by using sticky notes to represent various elements on a page. Standing around a whiteboard and moving sticky notes around is a fast and easy way to test out a number of ideas when various team members are working on the same project.
This is a very important point that is nevertheless easy to overlook. When creating a wireframe, you need to choose a canvas size based on the size of the screen you expect a user to be viewing a page on.
For example, studies and surveys indicate that mobile browsing is now more common than desktop browsing. There’s a good chance future users will access any pages you design via a smartphone or similar small-screened device. Remember that when wireframing.
A wireframe is typically a blueprint for a single page on a given website or app. Remembering this is critical.
It’s not enough for a layout to make a single individual page user-friendly. You have to keep in mind that this page may bring users to other pages on the site. Thus, you must design it in such a way that a user “flows” through the site naturally.
The way in which you go about doing so will depend on the specifics of the project. In general, though, you should make a point of considering how a given page functions in relation to other pages when creating a wireframe.
Although it is true that no one layout is the “best” layout for all web and app pages, some general rules still apply to most layouts. For example, it’s often wise to emphasize simplicity whenever possible.
That doesn’t mean stripping a page of essential elements in an effort to reduce clutter. Your goal is to ensure a page features all the content and elements it needs to provide a user with a convenient experience, while also ensuring a user isn’t too overwhelmed or stimulated to navigate a page easily.
Striking that balance can be difficult. This is particularly true if a page simply must feature a wide range of elements to serve its purpose. However, throughout the wireframing process, it’s smart to consistently ask yourself if there are any changes you can make to a layout to promote simplicity without sacrificing functionality.
You don’t need to actively seek inspiration to find it. After all, you probably use apps and visit sites every single day. When doing so, quickly ask yourself how the design of a given page strikes you. Whenever you notice a design or feature that stands out, make a note of it, or sketch out the feature if it makes sense to do so.
This applies to features that make both a positive and negative impression. Taking notes when you find layouts that improve the user-experience is obviously helpful, but taking notes when a layout makes the wrong impression will help you remember to avoid certain mistakes.
Most importantly, practice as often as possible. Being able to create a wireframe is an extremely valuable skill in web development. Luckily, it doesn’t need to be a difficult skill to learn.
Ryan is the VP of Operations for DEV.co. He brings over a decade of experience in managing custom website and software development projects for clients small and large, managing internal and external teams on meeting and exceeding client expectations–delivering projects on-time and within budget requirements. Ryan is based in El Paso, Texas.