I recently created a set of wireframes for the iPhone App Kris and I are creating. Creating may be putting it too strongly. It’s the app we are talking about creating. It’s not anything groundbreaking, just something I wish I had on my iPod Touch. It’s simple and it would be pretty easy to have Kris go off and start coding while I whip up a few icons. That’s just not how I roll.
I have to make wireframes. They are a part of who I am. It’s the only method I’ve found to clarify the things we agree on and make obvious the things we disagree about or haven’t even considered. To me, the essential properties of a wireframe are that they are done early and that they are shared. Knowing who you’ll be sharing with should tell you everything else you need to know.
The concept of wireframing isn’t owned by the user experience industry, but we are both authors of wireframes and students of them. But I hope we can stop focusing so much on wireframes as a “deliverable” and use them as the tool they are meant to be. Not that the polish of wireframes from a great user experience group isn’t astounding. I think I’ve created some damn fine deliverables in my day. But, I wish I had been in an environment where they could have truly fulfilled their purpose.
I’ve worked both as a consultant and in-house Information Architect. In those settings, wireframing tends to be done in a sub-optimal manner:
- You’re brought in just before development (if you’re lucky) most of the time.
- The wireframe deliverable is a set of milestones on a project plan that’s already behind schedule, so you go into “heads down” mode to get it “knocked out.”
- You have a standard template, interface guidelines, and functional requirements as your inputs.
Wait, it’s not like that where you work? Are you hiring? Stop reading and call me!
For the rest of us, this is a frustrating situation. As a young, idealistic IA just out of grad school, I hated working like this. I remember thinking everyone else was crazy for not realizing how backward it was. It’s about people and communication, not form fields and submit buttons. But, what I got out of fighting the urge to stab myself in the eye with my pen in meetings was a very marketable set of skills.
I always vowed I’d do it differently if I was in charge. The IA would attend concept meetings and sketch as ideas were thrown at her like some crazy game of Pictionary. The wireframes would be a living breathing document shared, revised, and shared again with only what was necessary to communicated the idea. Then, the IA would work with a technical writer who would use the wireframes of the basis for document that would contain all the details QA and Development teams needed. Ah, to dream…
When I was the sole IA, I did as close to that as I could. There wasn’t the pressure of a documentation standard or a predetermined schedule for the deliverable. I knew who the audience of my wireframes was and felt free to collaborate with that audience at very rough and early stages. I was often also the PM on the project, so that helped me gauge when specific decisions would need to be made and kept me from focusing on tiny details too early. Best of all, no one felt like they were paying for the wireframes themselves. I wanted them to look professional, but I never worried that they didn’t look expensive enough.
Did I ever have to worry that they didn’t look expensive enough? Damn right. Clients were billed a lot of money for wireframes I slaved over. With every form field perfectly aligned and every first instance of a brand name properly trademarked, they left my computer a glorious shinning example of my ability to pay attention and use Visio. I think I did good work, but I was always unsatisfied with the wireframing task.
So, as Kris and I discussed the app, I started roughing out a use case. As quickly as I could, I put together some wireframes to make sure he and I are on the same page before either of us starts working independently on front-end and back-end tasks. Because we’re working in the same room at the same time, I have the freedom to wireframe just enough to communicate intent. It will be interesting to me to see how the wireframes evolve and I’ll keep you posted.
What are your thoughts on wireframing?