It’s often been said that a picture is worth 1,000 words.
In building software products, that’s not just a platitude, there’s a great deal of truth to that statement.
While there are a variety of pictures that product teams use, the three most common are wireframes, mockups, and prototypes.
These three artifacts have enough similarities that many people refer to them interchangeably. However, it’s important to understand the difference between each artifact. Each artifact has a specific purpose, and they can often build upon each other.
So to help you make the most effective use of wireframes, mockups, and prototypes let’s look at each artifact and find out when you might use each one.
What are Wireframes, Mockups and Prototypes?
As a starting point, here are the key characteristics of each artifact.
To help with that exploration, we talked to a group of product designers to get their explanation of the different artifacts. Here’s how Chris Bryant, UX Designer at GraphicPie, Gabriela Parrott, Senior Product Designer at Feathery, and Vicki Mace, founder of Insight Digital Copy, described each of the different artifacts.
A wireframe is a basic, two-dimensional visual representation of a web page, app interface, or product layout. You can think of it as a low-fidelity, functional sketch.
Wireframes typically depict only functionality, not the true style and visual elements of the final product. It’s why most wireframes look simple. They comprise grayscale instead of colors, placeholders for images and text, and are frequently hand drawn.
The simplicity of wireframes make them easy to create and revise. When you’re trying to build understanding about how your product might work, you can even make use of wireframes as an aid to your conversation.
Chris described wireframes as “low-fidelity representations that map out the basic layout and structure of a product. They are ideal for exploring different design directions, testing layouts, and navigation patterns.”
Gabriela adds that “wireframes are a means to establish clear content hierarchy and act as a touchpoint for all stakeholders to collaborate while still in the abstract phase of the product creation process.”
Vicki explained wireframes comprise “a series of lines shaped into rectangles and squares indicating key elements on a page such as a logo, heading, image, text block and so on. Wireframes are quick to generate and are useful when having initial discussions about a page or app layout.”
A mockup is a realistic visual representation of a product. In manufacturing, a mockup can be a scale or full-size, physical model of the product. In digital product management, a mockup will be a detailed depiction of the app.
Mockups don’t include product functionality. They do not let the user “do” anything. Most importantly, they should share the team’s vision for the product with the other company stakeholders and customers.
Chris explains that “mockups are higher-fidelity representations that include more visual design elements, such as typography and color. They are used to explore specific design details and create more polished design deliverables.”
Gabriela points out that a product team uses mockups to iterate on their design “once the content has solidified. Mockups give a more concrete visual asset for stakeholders to react to and use to refine content.”
Vicki notes that mockups “typically include all design elements including brand colors, fonts, images and copy. The images and copy may not be the same ones that are used in the final published website or app, but the layout and design are accurate.”
When your product team can iterate on its design via a mockup, you’re able to respond to feedback about the design without having to make more time-consuming changes to the product itself.
A prototype is an artifact that allows your users to get a clear idea of how your product functions. You can create a prototype using paper and pen, prototyping software, low code tools or the programming language you’re building your product with.
Your product team typically uses prototypes to test the usability and functionality of your product and get feedback from users.
Chris describes prototypes as “interactive representations that simulate the user experience of a product. They are ideal for user testing and gathering feedback on specific design interactions.”
Gabriela notes you can create prototypes from “wireframes or mockups, and are best for understanding the way your full user experience will feel. The sooner you start prototyping, the better.”
According to Gabriela, you can use prototypes to “test out your hypothesis and act as a handoff asset to create an efficient development roadmap. An engineering team can also do prototypes to confirm technical constraints and possibilities.”
Vicki uses prototypes as “a demonstration of how a website or app will work in the real world. It contains clickable links to allow the user to navigate between screens. This is most appropriate for apps or when the client requires a visual example of how the end product may look.”
When can you use wireframes, mockups, and prototypes?
Now that we described each different type of artifact, let’s look at when you may use one or more of the artifacts during the product development lifecycle.
Design your product
The most common use for wireframes, mockups, and prototypes is when you design your product. In most cases, you’ll often use all three as you gradually build a more detailed understanding of your product and then test out your original designs.
Galina Yatsuk, UI/UX Designer at Orangesoft views wireframes, mockups, and prototypes as a design journey:
“First, you create a wireframe – a low-fidelity design that looks like a bunch of raw screens. This handful of screens is enough to show the UX of the app, user flow, and approximate logic of the app behavior.
Then, you add UI to your wireframes to make the blueprints look more like the actual app screens. And that is called a mockup – which is still only a static representation of a product.
Finally, you join all screens into a prototype so that the customer can click through it just like they’d do on a real application.”
Split up your product design by stage
Leizel Laron UI/UX Designer at Exaweb provided a similar perspective on how you can use the three artifacts with each other to design a successful product.
“Usually, the first step in developing a website or an app is to create a wireframe.
At this stage, the brand’s color and typography are not included yet. Some designers might skip wireframing, but it is critical for user testing and helpful for building the website’s interaction flow faster.
From the hand-drawn, black-and-white, and plain wireframe, designers may now give the layout a more distinct look by applying the brand’s colors and typography. In short, mockups create the visual brand identity of the product. Most importantly, this step helps both the designer and the client understand and visualize the website or app design better.
The last stage—the prototype—is a working model of the website or app involving no coding. Designers use this to test the user’s journey throughout the platform. This stage is also used to spot user-related problems. Above all, it can guide the developers as they better learn the functionality and interaction flow of the product.”
Communicate product strategy
We’ve found that you can strengthen executive and stakeholder buy-in when you’re able to supplement your product roadmap with some very basic wireframes that further depict your high-level product strategy.
You don’t need a ton of wireframes at this point. Most importantly, choose a few wireframes that depict the aspects of your product with the biggest impact on those executive stakeholders. For example, if your desired outcome is to increase the amount of data your product can gather and analyze, you can mock up a few screens to show which valuable data you can collect.
Consequently, your product leaders will probably react more positively to a few simple drawings than they will to the same information conveyed as a large block of text.
Describe feature requirements
Wire frames are helpful for building shared understanding around the problem you’re trying to solve and the requirements for your solution.
When you’re using the wireframe for this purpose, the act of creating the wireframe in collaboration with your product team and users is where you gain the most clarity.
For example, in the first couple of discussions about a new product or feature, Vicki Mace “will discuss the requirements and start some basic wireframes to help with the discussions. We can edit the wireframes quickly following feedback.”
Test designs and get feedback
A primary use of prototypes is to simulate how a product will work before you fully build it out. This helps you confirm that your initial solution solves your targeted problem effectively. Furthermore, it can help you avoid rework by identifying solutions that won’t work.
Kent McDonald, a Freelance Product Manager at KBPMedia found this out from firsthand experience.
“I was working with a team to rebuild a 20-year-old internal product that priced production inputs.
At one point, we were getting ready to build a user interface that would allow staff to change individual prices from different grain elevators. The approach we initially thought would work was to display the current prices for all the elevators on the same page. Then if staff wanted to change a value, they’d click on a particular price and it would open a dialog box where they could change it.
The product designer created a prototype for the interface and then we sat down with our users to talk through it. One of our users took one look at the prototype and said “This would be terrible. It would take me all day to make updates!”
We had forgotten to account for how many updates they’d have to do daily. It was definitely a face palm moment for the product designer and I.
Fortunately, we hadn’t started development work on the interface yet, so we could change the design of the interface before the developers started working on it.”
The key thing to take from that example – use a prototype to make minor mistakes quickly in order to avoid more costly mistakes.
Support the sales process
Not only can wireframes and mockups help you design and develop products, they can also help you explain a new product to potential customers. Especially when you’re trying to line up customers before you develop the actual product.
For example Max Trewhitt, Designer and Content Specialist at Freepik, used “visual mockups of existing elevations to push through proposals and win contracts. Using mockups and wireframing, we could win over client approval, essentially fulfilling a year-long contract with an impressive client.”
Comparing the Artifacts
We’ve covered a lot of territory about wireframes, mockups, and prototypes. So, we thought it’d be helpful to provide a comparison table with some key info.
|A quick sketch to convey the concept for a new product or feature
|A representation of the intended design
|An interactive simulation of functionality
|How detailed (fidelity)
|Build shared understanding of a solution
|Establish product design and facilitate iteration
|Collect feedback from user testing
|Pen & paper, wireframing software
|Programming language, prototyping software, paper and pen (no code)
|PM or UX Designer