Wireframes, prototypes, and mockups are three tools designers use to represent new applications, designs, and interfaces in development. Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, each has a distinctive meaning.
Keep reading to learn the definitions of each term and the differences between wireframe vs. prototype vs. mockup.
In software design, all new applications typically go through a five-step design process:
Sketching the design of an application involves the lowest level of complexity and requires the fewest tools; this happens prior to the wireframe vs prototype vs mockup conundrum. A design sketch is often nothing more than hand-written and hand-drawn sketches on paper laying out the application’s primary outline and design intents.
Wireframing is the step that follows sketching. When wireframing an application, the ideas presented in sketches are laid out on a white background using black text and black boxes and lines to represent buttons and visual elements.
In this stage, the application’s layout, structure, and essential features are represented in the lowest possible fidelity. Its purpose is to display the application’s overall outline and organization, from which finer points and details can later be designed.
After wireframing, designers produce a mockup: a visually mature representation of the application’s intended looks and design.
At this stage of the flow, the application’s visual elements are identical or very close to what they are intended to be upon release. However, a mockup remains 100% non-functional and non-interactive, as it’s a series of static images.
The mockup is a graphical model for testing the viability and harmonization of color schemes, patterns, and visual elements such as fonts and buttons.
The primary difference between a wireframe and a mockup is visual fidelity. While neither is functional, the mockup possesses the final or near-final graphical elements that the app will feature at launch.
Although similar in overall fidelity, prototypes and mockups aren’t synonymous; they’re two distinct phases of application design.
The essential element differentiating mockups vs. prototypes is functionality. A mockup only looks like a finished product but has no interactivity; e.g., nothing is clickable. In contrast, a prototype is a functional application that looks and feels like a finished product.
The application’s user interface and functionality are under construction at this development stage. A prototype also lets designers submit it to testing groups for feedback and reliability, allowing them to tweak and refine the application before release.
Prototyping is further subdivided into two stages: alpha testing and beta testing.
An application in its alpha-testing stage is in the earliest prototyping stages and typically lacks many, if not most, of its intended functions. The alpha-testing phase tests the app’s basic functionality and reliability in normal conditions.
An application in its beta-testing phase is a refined, functional application that features all or at least most of its intended functions, making it the closest to product release. The beta-testing process usually consists of reliability improvement and searching for last-minute bugs and issues.
When wondering what the differences are when it comes to wireframes vs. prototypes vs. mockups, prototyping is the last step, and the prototype is approved based on functionality. Although there is no such thing as 100% bug-free, an application is deemed ready for release after eliminating enough bugs and faults during the beta-testing process.