What’s A Wireframe?
Wireframes are great for visual communication, solving design problems and building team consensus. People will understand what you’re trying to say better and faster with pictures. It helps them see how things are connected, whether or not something is missing and how changes to one thing may impact something else. An agency creative director once asked me what I found compelling about working in plain old black and white. With all due respect, I told her that what I love most about wireframes is they help teams focus clearly on content and functionality. Just the facts, ma’am. No graphic design – just placeholders for navigation, content, and notes on system behavior. Plus despite what she may think, it’s a very creative exercise.
From a timing and cost perspective, wireframes help designers work through a variety of site layouts before they commit a full team of resources to the project. This can save clients big bucks. Just like you wouldn’t build or renovate a house without a clear blueprint, you shouldn’t build or redesign a web site or web application without wireframes. But wireframes are only one step in a larger process of first understanding business goals, user needs and site requirements. Before you even touch a wireframe you need a clear understanding of what it is you want to build. And that’s what sketching is for.
In Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web, Christina Wodtke and Austin Govella state “Information Architecture is good thinking written down”. More specifically, wireframes represent good team thinking written down. They simply cannot be done in a vacuum. So before you start cranking them out in your favorite software program, grab your sketchbook and get everyone involved in the project together, either on the phone or in person. People think visually and respond much faster to visual images. Capturing good team thinking into a visual diagram takes skill, patience and perseverance. The trick is to nail the requirements early on from all project stakeholders.
Hold A Requirements Gathering Work Session
The first step is to schedule a requirements gathering work session. This is usually a 90-minute to two-hour meeting that includes everyone working on the project, especially senior decision makers. If that’s not possible, make sure everyone understands the potential downstream impact of leaving that person (or persons) out of the discussion. These meetings can be done in person or remotely using an online collaboration tool such as GoToMeeting. If it’s a remote gathering make sure everyone has a good Internet/phone connection and can view your presentation link. If it’s an in person meeting bring snacks and get a decent sized conference room. A large whiteboard in a conference room is great. If you can’t get that bring a pad of oversize post its and stick ‘em up all around the room. Online or live, make sure you’re ready to rock at the appointed start time.
Start by asking some basic questions. Who’s the audience? What makes them pay attention, and what will make them take action? Some organizations will have a creative brief available. For others this may be their first opportunity to explore this critical question. Try to find out as much as you can about who the site is for and what makes them tick. If time allows, sketch out rough personas representing each user type. Make sure everyone is in agreement on this. Knowing your audience and their hot buttons is the most important place to start.
Putting It All Together
By the end of the meeting you’ll have a whiteboard or computer screen full of ideas, or perhaps an entire pad of post-its stuck to the wall. Your job now is to organize all this material in a way that’s relevant to you. This is where your humble sketchbook earns its keep. If you’re in an office setting it’s also useful to take some pictures of everything that got plastered to the wall. Take your time and make careful notes of how the team envisions the system. Keep in mind you may need to reschedule another work session for further exploration. Assuming the meeting was a success, you should have everything you need to start creating wireframes in your favorite software program. Keep your sketchbook handy and crank away, but remember this is only the beginning of an iterative process; you’ll want to get those same people together a few more times as the prototype system becomes more solid, at least on paper.