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In the world of product management, one skill that you’ll want in your toolbelt is being able to create a wireframe or prototypes.

Using prototypes or a wireframe is a great visual representation to convey an idea you may have for a mobile app or a website, and a way to get user feedback that isn’t time-consuming.

That said, there is plenty of confusion about the differences between prototypes and wireframes. There’s plenty of overlap between the two in what they cover, but there are many key differences as well. 

It’s easy to think that the main difference between a wireframe and prototypes comes down to one being low-fidelity (a wireframe), while the other is high-fidelity (prototypes), but there is much more to it than that. 

In this article, we’ll take a look at what a wireframe is, along with prototypes, and the differences between the two. We’ll also discuss mockups, the middle ground between the two, and how much you should be aware of the design process as a product manager. 

What Is Wireframing?

Let’s first look at what a wireframe is. 

A wireframe is stripping the idea down (such as an app or a webpage) to its very core. This is the 30,000-foot view of what your app or webpage may look like. It includes an outline of the structure, the user interface, and how information is laid out in front of the user. 

The focus here is simplicity—creating a wireframe is not a time-consuming process. Your focus here is not on the user experience or interactivity. 

A wireframe is great for getting quick feedback from key stakeholders that you’re on the right track. If not, it’s easy to create iterations with a few adjustments. 

What Does A Wireframe Look Like?

Some of the basic practices of wireframing include the following: 

  • A wireframe is usually black and white or grayscale
  • Lorem ipsum text is common as a placeholder
  • Instead of showing images, using a simple box (usually with an “x” in it) will do the job

Remember that this is low-fidelity: the functionality and user experience comes later. 

Wireframe Gif
Examples of how a wireframe can look across various devices. (Source)
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Tools For Creating A Wireframe

If you want to go old school, creating a wireframe with pen and paper is more than enough to get the idea across quickly. Perhaps you’re out for lunch or at a coffee shop and all you have is a napkin and a pen when a pen strikes. 

If not, one popular wireframing software solution to creating a wireframe is Balsamiq. This software is strictly about creating wireframes and nothing else. 

Of course, if you don’t want to learn yet another software tool, creating a wireframe is possible with apps you may be more familiar with, such as Sketch and Invision. 

Remember, a wireframe is low-fidelity that you can put together quickly to get an idea across. You don’t want to spend tons of time trying to learn new software (although Balsamiq is fairly easy to learn). 

Wireframe Made In Balsamiq Screenshot
A wireframe made in Balsamiq. (Source)

What Product Managers Should Know About Wireframes

As a product manager, you want to be able to convey your insight into something that’s visual that takes little time. 

Whether you’re showing something to a software developer, or someone in UX design, having the knowledge to create a quick wireframe will do wonders in serving your product management career. 

What Is Prototyping?

Prototypes are a high-fidelity version that, depending on user feedback, may not look and act that much different than your final product. 

Prototypes are great for user testing. You can test out the interactions, the user experience, the usability, and the user interface. 

Prototypes are much more time-consuming to create as they can closely represent the final product design, but it will save you plenty of time if you just went to creating the final product with testing it out via prototyping. 

What Does A Prototype Look Like? 

Depending on what your product is, the design of your prototype should look fairly similar to what the final design of the final product will look like. 

This should include the fonts, branding, design elements, and UI design of what your organization currently uses for other apps or web pages. 

Depending on how in-depth you want to go, you can create interactive prototypes to get a better idea of what the finished product will be like. This can include clickable links to take you to other parts of the prototype. 

You can also include animations and transitions to make a prototype that behaves much more like a final product would.

Prototype Made In Figma Screenshot
An example of a prototype made in Figma. (Source)

Tools For Prototyping

Some of the most common prototyping tools are as follows:

What Product Managers Should Know About Prototypes

This is going to depend on a number of factors. 

If you’re working at a smaller company, you may be wearing many hats and have an idea of how to put together a high-fidelity prototype. 

If you’re working at a larger organization, chances are you’ll have team members who specialize in user experience design. These are the team members that should be working on the prototype as they have a more specialized skill set that’s better suited to it. 

If you’re going to work on one skill as a product manager, spend more time on wireframing, as it’s something you’ll be doing more of. 

The Main Differences Between Prototyping And Wireframing

Let’s summarize the main differences between prototyping and wireframing:

  • A wireframe is low-fidelity that takes less time to create, while a prototype is high-fidelity that is more time consuming.
  • A wireframe is more to convey the 30,000 foot view of the idea of the product. A prototype is something that will be similar to how the final product acts and behaves.
  • A wireframe will make use of placeholders and focus on the overall structure. A prototype will make use of the actual design.
  • Wireframes are tools to get approval from stakeholders. A prototype will allow you to test the user experience and get user feedback from user interaction. 

Mockups: The Middle-Ground

There is a bit of a gap between a prototype and a wireframe. To help address the gap between the two, you should also know about mockups. 

While wireframes are quick to put together, it can sometimes be difficult to envision how the final product looks when all you have are greyscale boxes and lorem ipsum text. 

With a mockup, your focus is getting the visual design just right. This isn’t about usability testing or the user experience—that’s the prototype stage. It’s about the visual aspect of how the final product may look—it’s when you move to the prototype that you can start focusing on user flow.

The same thing here goes in regards to what a product manager should know about mockups as with prototypes.

If you’re working at a larger organization, you’ll no doubt have team members who are much better suited to the design process and can put together a mockup to get feedback. (And I'll be clear, feedback is crucial for catching problematic product design.)

In a Nutshell... 

Now you have a better understanding of the differences between mockups and prototypes, along with the middle ground of mockups. 

You should assess where you’re currently at in regards to your skill set here. If pen and paper has worked for you, you can continue to do so, or you can try your hand with the many excellent UX design tools at your disposal. 

Remember that there are only so many hours in the day, and the mockup and prototype side will be more up to team members who specialize in the design process. You’ll want to be working with them closely to create something with the most minimal barrier between the prototype and the final product. 

If you're interested in soaking up some more design intel, check out our roundup of web design conferences coming up this year.

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