The evolving meaning of “wireframing”

Why you shouldn’t abandon old-school wires when it comes to design exploration

Free Association
4 min readSep 21, 2023
Source: Midjourney

The primary intent of UX design has always been to solve problems in creative ways. Or at the very least, to make an existing solution more elegant, intuitive, or streamlined. But whether there’s an existing solution or not, a key part of the UX process is exploration — turning over as many stones as possible.

Over time, numerous tools and frameworks were invented to bring structure to the exploration phase, including jobs to be done, the double diamond approach, how might we’s, crazy eights, et cetera. Most of these things exist outside the design canvas and instead live inside Notion tables, presentation decks, or Miro boards. But that wasn’t always the case. We used to leverage tools like Omnigraffle and Balsamiq to quickly mock-up ideas in the most lo-fi way possible, and we called it wireframing. Then we might have used something like InVision to stitch together a few screens, and we called that a prototype.

The wires, they are a-changin’

When we used these kinds of tools in the past, we almost never knew what the solution was yet. The tools made it easier to bring lots of ideas to life in a tangible way, without having to think through every little interactive detail. Once we were through with the divergent phase and started converging on a single concept, we threw away the wires and started fresh using a full-fledged design tool.

If that’s what someone wants nowadays, they might not want to call it wireframing. At some point, wires turned into v1 design deliverables that are actually quite high-fidelity, yet sometimes also full of lorem-ipsums, FPOs and TKTKs. The difference between a wireframe and an interactive prototype is negligible, and you can see it in the tools these days.

Know the right time and place

To be fair, these kinds of hi-fi deliverables can be valuable for things like diagramming user flows or demonstrating interactive possibilities. But jumping straight into something like conditional logic often shortchanges the explore phase, because it emphasizes the wrong things. Interactive details almost never change the core concept — they’re usually just visual choices. Instead of tweaking a form to make it feel more “real”, we should be questioning whether a form even makes sense. Can we capture the right data in a different way? How would the experience need to change if — for argument’s sake — the user had no way of inputting data?

Once you’ve done the hard work imagining a wide range of materially different UX approaches, moving into hi-fi mode makes complete sense. But in the early days of your project, all the time it takes to “configure” things in a tool like Axure would be better spent quickly mocking-up ideas, even if some of those ideas are complete non-starters. Crazy ideas are often a bridge to something more feasible, which otherwise you never would have imagined.

Tactical ways to avoid this trap

In short, there’s simply no substitute for some kind of lower-fi, divergent thinking in the creative process. So with that, here are a few recommendations to keep that creative spirit alive in every project, no matter which tools you use:

  • Whether you call them wires or not, your first design efforts should be mostly about generating ideas.
  • Wires in the classic sense should have just enough fidelity to see an idea in practice, and probably shouldn’t make sense to anyone else except the other folks involved.
  • At this level of fidelity, your focus should be coming up with materially different ideas, not a bunch of visual alternatives. If you need help, combine wireframing with any kind of divergent / generative framework.
  • Sketching with pen and paper is often best (especially in a group setting or as a first step if you’re designing something solo), as design software can lead you into picking a winner too soon.
  • It’s never too early to do this. As soon as people start describing their solution ideas out loud, stop talking and start wireframing. There are so many ideas that sound great but don’t work in practice, and vice versa.
  • As you start converging and increasing design fidelity, take a stab at realistic content, copy and brand elements — before tweaking on the interactive stuff. If you can’t come up with realistic content, that could be a sign that the concept still doesn’t make sense.