Sketch, wireframe, prototype

Over the past month, I’ve come across the same discussion several times: “When designing a website or product, do you use wireframing or prototyping?”

The first part of my answer is: “Make sure you sketch, first.”

At the design stage, sketching, wire-framing, and prototyping are not equal. Sketching is useful at the divergent phase of design because it lets the design participants express and capture lots of different ideas quickly and anywhere that pen and paper will work. Nothing is as fast as running a pen across a sheet of paper to capture an idea—and then another, and another. And since sketching is intentionally rough, everyone can do it.


Responding to Œ the problem statement, first  saturate the design space with lots of ideas, and then Ž analyse and rapidly iterate them to  a design solution.

I also believe sketching is great for the convergent phase of design, but there are potential hurdles that design participants may encounter. It can be challenging to convey complex interaction, 3D manipulation, transitions, and multi-state or highly interactive GUI in sketches without learning a few additional techniques. This is unfortunate, because having to learn additional techniques reduce the near-universal accessibility of sketching.

The second part of my answer, therefore, is that “if you need to learn additional techniques to make sketching work, feel free to choose wireframes or prototyping as alternatives when there are compelling reasons to do so.”

I should point out that the three techniques—sketching, wireframing, and prototyping—are not mutually exclusive. Wireframes and paper prototypes can both be sketched—especially for simple or relatively static GUI designs.

There are no validity concerns with the use of low-fidelity sketches, as these readings show:

Why pen+paper is better

When solving a software-design problem or a web-design problem, you get the best results from following a design process. I’m not referring to something I made up. I’m referring to something that people who are trained in “Design” will recognise as a design process. And such processes inevitably include divergence and convergence.

Divergence is the stage when the designer or design participants come up with ideas. Lots of ideas. Not just comfortable ones, but ideas that push at the edge of the envelope. Ideas without judgement.

Convergence is the stage when ideas are judged, rapidly iterated, assessed, and checked against the requirements.

In my experience, divergence is best done by sketching, with a pen on paper:


Sketching on paper with a wide-nib pen is best because this “technology” is familiar—it’s easy—and inexpensive. Everyone can Wide-nib markerhave a pen and paper, so there’s no need to wait your turn. Sketching is fast, so designers have little invested in any one sketch. Modifying or iterating any one of the ideas is easier to accept. Most importantly, for inexpert sketchers, the sketching process intrinsically discourages high-fidelity work and the wide-nib pen discourages sketching the fine detail that detracts design participants from getting the ideas out, fast.

Software that’s intended to help people “sketch” detracts from a good result. The software often lets users build prototypes with a great level of interaction detail. The problem with this: attention to detail is a distraction at the divergence stage. When filling the design space with ideas, it’s sufficient merely to evoke the idea and share it. Ambiguity actually helps the team see more than one idea in the same sketch; each interpretation of the idea can be iterated. Software that’s not intended to help people to “sketch” slows them down at the divergence stage—just when we need ideas to flow quickly. Divergence is about filling the design space with lots disposable ideas.

Read my blog post about why ideas are disposable.