In the world of app and website design, there are numerous stages from conception to launch. For people not involved in those processes on a day-to-day basis, keeping all those stages and their terminology straight can be difficult.

Two related stages that are commonly confused are the wireframing and mockup stage. The two terms are often used interchangeably by non-design professionals (and even mixed up with prototyping, to add further confusion.

Understanding the differences will help you understand what the stage a given project is in, and what the expectation is for the progress of that project given whether it’s in the wireframing or mockup stage.

Wireframe vs. Mockup

To understand the difference between a wireframe and a mockup, it’s best to start at where each falls in the design process. A wireframe is created before a mockup, and a mockup builds upon the wireframe.

What is a Wireframe?

Wireframing is used to outline the design of a web page or app. It’s commonly compared to drawing a blueprint in the building design process. 

A wireframe is a two-dimensional drawing – sometimes created on paper, but typically built with wireframing tools – that shows each element that needs to be included on a page and where the element should be located. The elements of a wireframe are not functional and don’t include key elements of design, such as images or brand colors. There is certainly no interactivity, which doesn’t come until the prototyping stage.

Wireframes are created by a UX designer to build a page that will reach a certain result while also providing an optimal user experience. The designer takes criteria for the project from various stakeholders and turns it into a wireframe. Because a wireframe on its own shows strictly page elements and layout, wireframe annotations are typically used to provide supplemental information.

Overall, wireframing is used early in the design process to set a foundation for the rest of the design and development process necessary to turn an idea into a live page.

What is a Mockup?

A mockup is created after the wireframe, building upon the designs and information provided by the UX designer. Depending on the size of the company or design team, a UI designer typically plays an integral role in the creation of a mockup.

If a wireframe is the blueprint – showing all of the pieces of a website or app and where they will be located, but not providing information on how those pieces will look when they are built – then a mockup would be like a 3D image rendered to show a building will looks once erected. Much like with a 3D rendering, a mockup allows someone to see what the page will look like, but it is static and does not allow a viewer to see how it will function.

A mockup adds on to a wireframe and shows much more detail. Where the wireframe annotations were required to explain visual elements, a mockup goes the next step and builds those design elements into the static page.

With a mockup, stakeholders can really visualize the layout and design of a page without too much imagination. In the mockup phase, details such as spacing, color, typography, navigation, and more are shown, whereas they were missing from a wireframe.

When should you use a wireframe vs a mockup?

There are some common problems to solve that can be associated with either a wireframe or a mockup.

Use a wireframe to:

  • Layout a draft of a page
  • Rearrange a page’s elements
  • Design user flow and experience
  • Display page layout to any stakeholders or clients

Use a mockup to:

  • Decide on color scheme for a page or application
  • Apply company branding standards
  • Experiment with design details beyond page layout
  • Display a static user interface to any stakeholders or clients

Are both wireframes and mockups necessary?

Websites and applications have been created without wireframes and/or mockups before. But both play critical roles in the design process, and each offering value that should not be missed out on.

At a high level, both wireframes and mockups allow designers to focus on a single aspect of a page (layout for wireframes, visuals for mockups). This gives them the opportunity to apply design thinking and user experience best practices to ensure the page will do what stakeholders expect while also fitting with company branding.

The two stages also allow the opportunity for evaluation by all stakeholders, providing a specific benchmark at which feedback can be given and changes can be made. By getting stakeholder buy-in at each stage, it allows a team to avoid having to undo a lot of hours of work mandated by a stakeholder. And, ultimately, bringing in all parties and getting feedback allows you to create the best page possible.

Next steps

Wireframes and mockups are both key elements in the design process. Though they are commonly confused for one another, they are separate steps with defining features. When done properly, each promotes better application or web page creation and plays a role in the success of those pages when they are live.

Wireframing can be intimidating, but if you’re interested in it, the barrier to entry is low. There are numerous free wireframing tools you can use to get started, and we’ve evaluated the pros and cons of each.

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