Wireframes vs. Mockups: What's the Difference?

Wireframes vs. Mockups: What's the Difference?

We get that at times it seems like designers are speaking another language, full of code words that disorient and discourage ‘outsiders’ from poking around their cool-kids clubhouse. That may have been the case in the past, but as design becomes more interwoven throughout organizations and design tools become more accessible to non-designers, it’s time to pull back the curtains on some of the whats and whys in a product design process.

As part of our effort to help non-designers gain a confident grasp on key design terms, this article will dig into a frequently confusing topic: the difference between wireframes and mockups. Along the way, we’ll clarify what we mean when we talk about design "fidelity" and how it evolves with iterations. You’ll leave with a clear picture of what differentiates a wireframe from a mockup and the important roles they each play in a design process. Welcome to the club!

Wireframes vs. mockups: The basic breakdown

The question of how wireframes are different from mockups essentially aligns with the difference between UX and UI. UX, or user experience design, is geared toward figuring out how things work, and UI, or user interface design, is about how things look. You could say that the two have a symbiotic relationship, two halves of a whole that rely on each other to create a fully designed experience.

The purpose of wireframes is to visualize a screen’s information architecture and functional elements. Wireframes are generally produced by UX designers and product managers and are used to guide collaboration with both UI designers and developers (you can find out more about what wireframes are in our dedicated guide.)

The purpose of mockups is to show how stylistic design elements like branding, color, typography, and iconography, as well as photography and illustration, are expressed as an overall creative direction. Mockups tend to be the domain of UI or visual designers, who act as stewards of the brand, ensuring the creation of and adherence to clearly defined style guidelines (you can discover more about what mockups are in our guide).

Mockups vs. wireframes, the fidelity spectrum

We use the term “fidelity,” which refers to the level of precision and detail applied to the design. Put differently, the level of fidelity refers to how close to a real finished digital product a design is. Here’s how that breaks down along a spectrum, with some example visuals for reference:

Low-fidelity wireframes aren’t very precise

They’re simple, rough sketches that give only a basic sense of an idea — the equivalent of dashing off some quick notes. Think ‘back of the napkin’ drawings or riffing at the whiteboard.

Low-fidelity sketches are often hand drawn, and you shouldn’t sweat your drawing skills. Keep it simple, just like this website wireframe template in Uizard!
Low-fidelity sketches are often hand-drawn or created on a digital drawing software

Mid-fidelity designs are a bit more refined

Think boxes and arrows and placeholder “lorem ipsum” text. They're usually a digitally structured version of your sketches that are semi-functional, but do not yet include any final design aesthetics or graphics.

You’ll likely work through a few rounds of iteration at medium fidelity, adding in more detail incrementally. Check out this mid-fidelity prototype created by our member, Marwa Ismail.
You’ll likely work through a few rounds of iteration at mid-fidelity, adding in more detail incrementally. Check out this mid-fidelity prototype created by our member, Marwa Ismail.

High-fidelity designs are the closest to the “real thing.”

They are polished, if not precisely accurate, representations of a holistic design vision. Mockups are, by nature, high-fidelity.

Mockups illustrate the detailed UI design, highlighting a cohesive look and feel. Take a look at this new high-fidelity template of a food delivery web app in Uizard!
Mockups illustrate the detailed UI design, highlighting a cohesive look and feel. Take a look at this new high-fidelity template of a food delivery web app in Uizard!

Wireframes vs. mockups in the design process

Generally, wireframes precede mockups in a design process because mockups require some basic guidelines of what content and functionality need to be included on a given screen. Wireframes reflect the truly iterative and collaborative nature of design work. As teams work through the “how might we” questions driving functional and technical explorations, loose ideas get tightened up with more specific details, and sketches are transformed into wireframes.

However, here’s where things get a little slippery. Sometimes mockups can be a starting point in themselves. For example, you might choose to create some dazzling mockups as part of your pitch to impress and inspire potential clients or investors. This is a tempting option, because who doesn’t love seeing an idea brought to life with beautiful designs and cool branding? But presenting mockups at this phase can be a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, mockups help stakeholders envision a near-future state where your product or service already exists. It’s a kind of speculative fiction that gets people amped up about what’s possible. On the other hand, there’s a risk of creating a kind of ‘success disaster,’ which is when your designs have created a too-good-to-be-true scenario. For example, your mockups might set unrealistic expectations about what’s actually achievable. Then, before your ideas have been properly vetted for technical feasibility or even customer desirability, your stakeholders are already married to a particular direction.

This doesn’t mean you should never use mockups to pitch your idea or kick off your design process. In fact, we think it’s a great way to garner early enthusiasm and feedback!

Wireframes vs. mockups vs. prototypes

Feedback and iteration are what nudge the design process forward, so you can think of moving from wireframes to mockups to prototypes as steps on an evolutionary path. Even if polished design mockups are your starting point, you’re still going to need to take a step back to develop your thinking in a lower-fidelity state. Odds are, things are going to change once you’ve started getting input from potential users and developers.

But there can still be a bit of a gray area when it comes to knowing how and when each type of design artifact comes into play. So, a general rule of thumb is that what differentiates wireframes and mockups from prototypes is interactivity.

Wireframes and mockups: Static screens and user flows

  • Wireframes and mockups tend to be static, meaning they are flat representations of screens. These are usually helpful for printing out and posting up in your workspace for design reviews. You can zoom out and see how everything works together or zoom in and focus on individual pages and elements.
  • Wireframes and mockups can, however, be made interactive with clickable target areas that link individual screens into basic user flows. Arguably, these are a form of low-fidelity prototype, but we’re not going to split hairs. For more guidance, we’ve created a guide for going from wireframe to low fidelity prototype to walk you through the steps using Uizard.

Wireframes and mockups: Straight talk about design

If there is any big secret about design, it’s this: a design process is rarely, if ever, linear. The path from concept to launch will likely be full of loops of testing out a number of different directions and approaches. Your ideas will change many times over as you look at things from different perspectives and gather user feedback.

Wireframes, mockups, and prototypes are, at their heart, tools to help you learn what’s working and what isn’t. Their chief purpose is to facilitate conversations with users, collaborators, and stakeholders, which is why we can’t say it enough: get your ideas in front of people early and often throughout the design process. It’s what all the cool kids do.

From sketch to wireframe to mockup to prototype, your designs evolve every step of the way with Uizard. Upload a sketch, and try Uizard for free today!