Why are we still wireframing in UX?

Oct 21, 2013 | Posted in user experience

Wireframes versus Rapid Prototyping

Last week, I had an interview with one of the largest tech companies in Seattle for a UX designer position.

I didn’t know what to expect. I was told it would be a technical interview, so I was prepared for the dreaded two-way code-window test. Instead it was a conversation about standard UX design techniques.

I explained that my method was: paper prototyping and user identification as part of requirements gathering; creation of a mockup (wireframing plus design) of the homepage in Photoshop; task mapping and site information architecture in text; then, after mockup approval, a first build (the prototype). From there, the prototype would be iterated, based on client feedback and heuristic evaluation, until it was approved to go live. After going live, I analyze a site’s analytics and iterate, analyze the analytics and iterate, again and again, for as long as the project’s parameters permit. I illustrated this methodology using one of my sites as an example and walked her through each step of my process.

But what she wanted was wireframes.

I told her I didn’t do wireframing except for that first mockup and text documentation, that I found rapid prototyping to be more efficient. I told her I could put together a package of mockups and task mapping/information architecture documents for one of my sites, which she allowed would be sufficient.

Then she asked if I would be happy in a position where I wouldn’t be building sites. She didn’t code, she told me, and her team of UX designers wouldn’t be coding either.

At the time, I said, “I don’t need to be building. It would be exciting enough to have access to so much user information.” Which is true: the thought of getting my mitts on such mountains of data runs a delicious shiver down my back.

But after the interview was over, I thought more about her question.

What it meant was that we have a fundamental difference in the way we approach UX. To her, UX design is a blueprint for prototyping. To me, it’s inextricably bound to the prototype itself. It’s hard for me to imagine creating an excellent UX — user experience — if I don’t have the site or app there to be experienced.

But she must know what she’s talking about, I told myself. She works for a supremely successful company.

So I did a little research, because I like to know if I’m doing something wrong or if I could be doing my work better. Right off the bat, I found a wonderful article from 2010 at UX for the masses,Wireframes are dead, long live rapid prototyping.”

Wireframes, your time is up. You’ve served your purpose. You’ve brought order where there was once chaos and provided gainful employment for thousands of UX designers, but I’m afraid now it’s time for you to go to the big recycling bin in the sky. You’re just no longer cut out for the cut and thrust of UX design and have been replaced by that young upstart called rapid prototyping.

You might think I was patting myself on the back at this point, and I have to admit it felt good to know there are others out there working the same way I am. I also think the article makes an excellent case for ditching wireframes for rapid prototyping. But what was really interesting was the last section: “That’s great, but I still need a paper trail…”

Suddenly I understood why this particular group at a company known for excellent usability was wireframing: a combination of skill set and group politics. (I have since discovered that other groups at that same company follow the rapid prototyping process rather than extensive wireframing.)

So which is better? Are both methods are equally valid? I don’t think so. Especially with the advent of so many different types of interaction due to the various form factors available to consumers — desktop, tablet, phone — and the form factors on the way, I believe rapid prototyping is the way to go.

What happened with the interview? I emailed the nice woman I interviewed with and told her I’d realized that no, I wouldn’t be happy if I weren’t prototyping. The question she’d asked was smart and intuitive. The mark of a good UX designer, rapid prototyping or not.

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