Wireframes and mockups are both important for the development process of apps, websites, and software tools. However, the two are very different from each other and serve contrasting purposes.
As a beginner, it can be easy to get confused between a wireframe and a mockup. Additionally, there is a third component to the development process: the prototype.
All that can be befuddling! However, the three represent different stages of the UX design process, starting with the wireframe, which is the beginning stage, and then moving on to the mockup and later the prototype.
Today, I will be discussing the major differences between wireframes and mockups. Furthermore, I will explain which tools and what skills levels are required for each and the purpose each one serves.
By the end of this article, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how to go about creating a wireframe and mockup, and an ample understanding of why you need both.
Let’s get into it.
A wireframe is a basic black and white sketch that conveys the functionality of a proposed application, software tool, or website. A wireframe is generally a skeletal, basic explanation of how the app will look and work.
In the wireframe, you will be able to see the main elements on the page but without the design details. Think of a wireframe as the skeleton and the mockup as the body.
A mockup is like a mind map. It’s pretty bare bones; it’s a simple blueprint that is not very challenging to create, as long as you understand the intended use case and functionality of the proposed software application.
In the above screenshot, I included a partial wireframe example from Lucidchart, a tool you can use to create charts, wireframes, diagrams, mockups, and more.
As you can see, it’s merely a basic plan for a website. It shows the buttons that will appear at the top of the page, different sections of text that will appear under the header, and where the “below the fold CTA” will appear.
There are no in-depth design characteristics indicated in that blueprint. It simply shows the basic setup of the website – the design will come later.
Here is the bottom half of that example.
Again, the goal here is to indicate functionality, not design specifics.
By looking at his blueprint, you can get a pretty good idea of the purpose of the website and how it will work.
That’s without needing to know details like the color of the CTA button or the font to be used for the indicated text. In fact, a wireframe generally uses placeholder text and doesn’t even indicate the exact text to use.
A mockup, unlike a wireframe, does include design information.
If you were to take the homepage wireframe example from Lucidchart, screenshotted at the top of this article, and turn it into a mockup, you would have to add color, fonts, and other design aspects.
A mockup is static and not yet a functional web page or app. Developers have not yet started to work on creating the actual software tool; there is no way to interact with the mockup.
Instead, it simply displays how the product – the webpage or software application – will look in the end.
While a wireframe conveys what the webpage will do and how it will do it, it doesn’t give you any specifics about the way the webpage will actually appear.
A mockup, on the other hand, builds on the work the wireframe designer has already put in and allows the viewer to get a glimpse of what it will look like.
If the Creately example above was only a wireframe, it wouldn’t include any colors, nor would it use different font sizes for different texts. It would only be a black and white sketch, though it would still show exactly where each field and element would go.
A wireframe is the first step in the app development process. You need a wireframe before you can get to work on the mockup; without knowing the intended functionality of the app, how can the UX designers proceed?
It’s like building a house without a blueprint. The construction workers won’t know where to start!
A mockup is the second stage in the development process, during which UX designers show what the app would look like when flesh and blood are added to a skeleton.
Finally, a prototype is the third stage, coming after the mockup. A prototype is at least a semi-functional app.
It’s not the end result just yet; you don’t need to create a fully functional app that requires a lot of coding. You’re not at the release stage just yet.
However, the goal of creating a prototype is to test how the app will work in real life. At least some level of interactivity and engagement must be possible.
A wireframe has no interactivity and engagement; at that stage, it’s not necessary, as you are only working on the idea of the app.
A prototype, unlike a wireframe, is for user testing. It’s for the developers to make sure that the app will be useful in real life, so they can build and release the final version.
In a prototype, you might add animations, pop-ups, effects, clickable buttons, and so on.
There is a time and place for both a wireframe and a prototype. A prototype requires a lot more work and effort than a wireframe, as well as more advanced tools.
If you were to start with a prototype, you might be wasting your time on an app that wouldn’t be profitable.
By starting with a wireframe, a team can typically approve the idea or layout of an app or website; once everyone is on board, design and user testing can take place.
While a lot of people understand the difference between a wireframe and a prototype, many still get confused between mockups and prototypes. The main difference between the two is that while they might look the same at first glance, a mockup contains no user interaction possibilities while a prototype does.
In other words, a mockup is still static, while a prototype is not.
Justinmind is a tool that allows you to create prototypes of websites and apps. Here is an example of a prototype of a flight booking app from Justinmind (screenshot below) – compare that to the mockup of a messaging app from Creately just above.
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I’ve included a couple of screenshots of it, just to show you how you can play around with the prototype and test it out yourself. You can head to this link and try it yourself!
If it were a mockup, you would only see a design of the app – nothing would happen when pressing on buttons.
Unfortunately, skipping from a wireframe straight to a prototype wouldn’t make sense. Showing how the app would look before jumping into user testing is a critical step.
For example, in a wireframe, it’s common to use placeholder text and standard fonts throughout the wireframe. However, the mockup allows designers to test out different texts and fonts, ensuring they fit into their respective fields.
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A wireframe is what is known as a low-fidelity design. Fidelity, in this sense, refers to the degree of exactness in the design (nothing to do with marital fidelity; there is more than one definition to the word).
However, a wireframe can be mid-fidelity as well. An example of a somewhat higher fidelity wireframe is this template from Lucidchart, which contains wireframes of several pages and details the user flow on an eCommerce site.
While a low-fidelity wireframe might be a simple sketch containing the basic elements of a webpage, a mid-fidelity wireframe will include more details; it may also include annotations.
Another example of a somewhat higher fidelity wireframe is this Creately template:
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That specific template already contains more details than a simple sketch; it includes different font sizes, a video, and some color. Here is a zoomed-in peek:
However, it’s still not on the level of a mockup, as the finishing graphical touches have not yet been added. It’s still not an accurate representation of how the end result will look.
For example, compare the wireframes above with this landing page wireframe below:
See the difference? One is a lot less elaborate than the others.
As a side note, wireframes that contain several steps of a user journey are called wireflows.
A mockup, on the other hand, is a mid- or high-fidelity design. A prototype is a high-fidelity design, but a mockup doesn’t need to be as detailed as a prototype.
Nevertheless, it’s not considered a low-fidelity design because more work needs to be put into it than a wireframe. You need to consider graphics, fonts, colors, icons, button design, and more.
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Due to being low-fidelity, advanced design skills aren’t really necessary to create wireframes. Most people can create wireframes, as long as they know how to use wireframe tools like Lucidchart or free alternatives.
Lucidchart even provides various wireframe templates for web pages and mobile apps.
In fact, you don’t even need online tools to create wireframes. You can use a pen and paper or a marker and a whiteboard to create a low-fidelity wireframe.
What you do need is an idea.
The people creating the wireframe aren’t necessarily the same people creating the mockup. To create a wireframe of an app, you don’t need to be a professional designer; the project head can create a wireframe and then pass it on to the design team to handle.
However, it’s important to know the basics of web design and user intent when creating a wireframe.
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A mockup, being a more advanced stage in the UX design process, requires more advanced skills and tools. You’ll need someone with advanced abilities who also understand things like user-friendliness to create the mockup.
Typically, a few mockups will be generated, so the best ones can be chosen. A team might have several designers, and each one may submit their own version; once a version is approved, the project can move on to the prototyping stage.
It’s a good idea to start from a sketch and/or a wireframe, even when you are the sole developer working on a project. Starting from a wireframe will help you visualize your app, and it will give you a foundation to build upon while helping you stay on the right track.
At the very least, you can create a simple sketch on a post-it note or paper.
However, when working alone, a wireframe isn’t always critical. If you are clear about your idea, and you already know what will go where after having thought it through many times, you can start from a mockup.
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A mockup is more essential than a wireframe, even when working alone. Sure, you can go straight to the prototype, but you will be missing out on the important step of ensuring your web page or app will actually look appealing and professional.
Again, the point isn’t necessarily to create just one single mockup and stick with it. You can create several mockups and pick the one you think will succeed the most.
I highly recommend using a mockup, even if you decided to skip the wireframe stage of the UX development process.
It can take just a minute or two to create a simple, low-fidelity wireframe. What takes more time is the thought leading up to the app – you have to work on a business idea and know what you are creating the app for.
However, once you have a clear idea of the type of app or webpage you will build and how you will monetize it, the wireframe will only require a few minutes of your time.
You need more time to create a mockup. You’ll have to experiment with different graphical elements until you create an end result that is visually appealing and has a friendly and professional look.
While both wireframes and mockups are essential, each type of model has its own disadvantages. I’m going to explain the benefits and drawbacks of each one here (these are more like limitations than actual cons).
- You don’t need a lot of time to create a wireframe.
- It gives you a foundation and a base from which to work.
- You don’t need advanced design skills to create it.
- You can create several wireframes quickly for the project manager or client, so they can approve the one they like the most.
- If creating an app or website for a client, you can create a wireframe quickly as a proposal without wasting too much time.
- A wireframe is pretty limited; it won’t allow you to see how the app will look in real life.
- Similarly, a wireframe won’t allow you to test the app.
- A wireframe typically only has placeholder text; when you add real text, you may have trouble fitting the text in the right place.
- If you are showing a wireframe to a potential client, they might approve it without knowing how the visual elements will contrast with each other. When they see the mockup, they may be disappointed, as it may be different from what they expected.
- You can take a project to the next stage by giving a look at your wireframe.
- While not yet a functional prototype, mockups allow you to show clients how the app will look.
- Creating mockups before moving on to the prototype allows you to ensure design friendliness.
- Being static designs, you can’t use mockups to test for bugs or UX friendliness.
- It takes more time to create a mockup than a wireframe.
- You need more advanced tools and skills. Those tools may cost money, or you may have to hire a designer if you don’t have design skills.
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A wireframe is a low-fidelity model that conveys the purpose of the proposed app or website. It shows which elements will go where.
A higher-fidelity wireframe may indicate the customer journey, with wireframes of several pages; that is known as a wireflow. A wireframe can contain a few or a lot of details; it can also contain annotations.
However, a wireframe doesn’t contain any specific design elements. It tells you what the app will do, but not how it will look.
A mockup, on the other hand, builds on the wireframe and adds graphical elements, including colors, fonts, logos, and even pictures or other media. However, both wireframes and mockups are static designs that don’t allow for user testing, unlike prototypes.
Tom loves to write on technology, e-commerce & internet marketing. I started my first e-commerce company in college, designing and selling t-shirts for my campus bar crawl using print-on-demand. Having successfully established multiple 6 & 7-figure e-commerce businesses (in women’s fashion and hiking gear), I think I can share a tip or 2 to help you succeed.