Andy Rutledge of Unit Interactive and Design View recently wrote a compelling and interesting article questioning the value of wireframes as a first deliverable for clients. While I have great respect for Andy, his company and views on design I can't help but think that he might be looking at wireframes from the wrong perspective.
His argument is that wireframes really don't communicate to clients what we may think and instead may confuse them instead. Lets be honest, wireframes do a piss poor job at conveying any sort of aesthetic value or impact. I really don't disagree with this statement or argument. If you are using wireframes as an iterative way to design from a visual perspective then yes, you might as well skip them all together and either do a complete mock-up or work on mood boards instead. Andy states:
Wireframes, however, cannot easily accommodate and convey vitally important components of the design. Gray boxes and non-contextual dummy content cannot describe…
- how contrast impacts content hierarchy
- the impact of brand-specific design features
- the impact of graphic and textural elements
- the eye/energy paths created or interrupted by color and contrast of graphic elements
I think everyone reading would agree with this statement. I know I do.
Wireframes Shouldn't Represent or Dictate Graphics
We don't evaluate a creative brief in terms of a logo's end visual. No one would look at a blueprint for a home and expect to see what the siding material would look like, or what color the house would be painted. I am sure that you would agree that you wouldn't look at a map of a park and expect to understand what it would look like to walk through the park.
Wireframes should not be used for layout or visual design. In fact if you don't think about changing layout, placement or emphasis when moving from wireframes to design you should seriously reconsider your process as a designer. Based on your approach to the design you placement, size and emphasis will change dramatically and that is OK.
Wireframes Should Represent Strategy
Wireframes rather than dictate or represent layout or aesthetics, should indicate what content needs to be on any given page as well as outline level of importance, goals and user paths. They should guide and inform the designer on business and user objectives so that they can make design and visual decisions that will best achieve those objectives.
This can easily assist in the design process as you are establishing with the client up front which elements on the page are most important and why. This will help them understand why you have as a designer put more emphasis on some elements vs others (in particular this can really help with the "make my logo bigger" issues).
If as a designer you are also creating the wireframes it will help in having you focus on the site objectives with out worrying about aesthetics and visuals. Separating this process can be valuable as moving straight into pure mockups can have a tendency in making one think in terms of visual impact rather than website effectiveness.
Elements of a Good Wireframe
Most designers go wrong because that they don't realize that a good wireframe should be more than just shaded boxes and filler text. The wireframe should contain more information than just a layout, it should outline what different elements are on the page, why they are there and how they tie into the objectives of the site and users. They should also clearly convey that it is not supposed to be representative of any sort of final design. A simple text disclaimer can go a long way in this case.
This means that the wireframe should contain both visual representations of content as well as supplementary information that details the approach and strategy of the page. This supplementary information can cover the primary and secondary calls to action, the stage the user is likely in of the sales funnel (AIDAS), the next logical page they will move to and so on.
When crafted this way it becomes much more apparent that the wireframe is a strategic plan not a "pre-mockup mockup" that has little or no value.
Wireframes are Incredibly Valuable
Ultimately wireframes are incredibly valuable when used correctly. I find it hard to think of a situation where it wouldn't be beneficial to start off with a plan focusing on objectives and goals rather than straight visuals. In design and website development the former informs the latter. To skip the step of planning and aligning goals to real pieces on the website would simply leave out one of the most important elements of process.