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Once the initial drawing, sketch, has been approved, it goes to the wireframing stage where the rough sketch is given lines and a better colour scheme. The wireframing stage is no way a final cut since it by itself is a low-fidelity stage. After this, mock-ups are built on the platform created by the wireframe.

What’s the Difference Between a Wireframe, Mock-Up, and Prototype?

Before we delve into the intricacies of the said terms, it is important to know why we need them in the first place.

Every brainstorming session regarding an upcoming design throws up some delightful results. These results have to be transformed into an illustrative medium to understand the path being taken.

4 Stages That You Must Know

A design sketch that can happen on a paper, or a PowerPoint slide. This sketch is not the final drawing and several modifications will be made to fine-tune the requirements. One must remember that the design process undergoes numerous transformations. It all starts from a rough sketch and then slowly metamorphoses into a substantial form.

The next step would be to create a wireframe, which is still a rough estimate of the ultimate design thought of. If the design process has to go into criticality, then the next two steps are inherently important. A mock-up will be created to establish the closest form available. A mock-up is generally the closest that can come to a rough design. Once the mock-up has been approved, the final stage of the design process arrives. This is the prototype.

A prototype is a fully functional example of the real thing and almost resembles the final product in reality.

In this article, we will look into the differences a bit more intimately. But before that let us see what each is defined as:

What is Wireframe?

A wireframe is a schematic view or blueprint of a design of the product. For example, if a web or mobile app is being built, then a wireframe will depict its skeletal framework.

What is a mock-up?

A mock-up is a model of the product which is built to scale. Mock-ups are generally related to the development process. Mock-ups are the next step after the wireframing step.

What is a prototype?

A prototype is a proof of concept. It is a sample of how the real product will look and feel like. This prototype will have to undergo numerous testing before it is finally accepted as the applicable design.

Every development process has to have a prototype built for the client to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the final product. Based on the final approved prototype design, will the end product be built.

Prototypes are built for detailed evaluations.

Difference between wireframe, mock-up and prototype

Wireframe Mock Up Prototype
Initial design stage Intermediate Design stage The final stage of designing
Not an evaluation stage Not an evaluation stage Evaluation stage
Easy to change Can be modified Based on real-life testing, changes will have to be final
Low fidelity Medium fidelity Highest since a prototype is closest to the final product
Non-interactive Non-interactive Extremely interactive
More of an ideating channel The end-stage of ideating Formation of the product after the end of the ideating stage
A channel for understanding Helpful to investors to understand how the product will look like and work A tool to garner detailed user feedback

There are a few debates which rage amongst designers and system architects as to the stages which appear before the prototype. One of the advantages of early prototyping is that a lot of costs involved in development is saved. One can go back to the design stage pretty early and get the flaws corrected.

However, the counter-argument is that flaws will keep recurring if the initial design has not been frozen. Later stage additions will only be successful if the early stages are satisfactory. This is a never-ending dilemma that most designers face. Also, an elongated design phase will have an inherent check and balances. However, a lengthier design phase will be a costly affair. This will lead to an increase in the budget and may hurt the overall project.

The question that comes to mind while answering for “what is the difference between wireframe, mock-up and prototype?” is the simple example of a pen.

A pen is a writing instrument which enables us to jot down important information. It is the same device which has helped us write our examinations and put a signature to the cheques. However, why does it feel different when we hold an indifferently designed pen. That is because one of the stages was either passed upon or not adhered to whilst designing the pen.

Every stage is as important as the previous one and the one thereafter. It all starts with a sketch where an extreme rough picture of the idea is illustrated. An illustration is important since the visualisation of data helps ideate better. It is similar to a graphical representation. A series of numbers tabulated in some form will always be difficult to comprehend until placed in an illustrative manner. Once the numbers have been picturised, it becomes easy for the viewer to understand the hidden message.

The Journey from Sketch to Prototype 

Once the initial drawing, sketch, has been approved, it goes to the wireframing stage where the rough sketch is given lines and a better colour scheme. The wireframing stage is no way a final cut since it by itself is a low-fidelity stage. After this, mock-ups are built on the platform created by the wireframe. A mock-up is a high fidelity stage since clients will be shown mock-ups of projects before it goes into the prototyping stage.

The success of the prototype is dependent on the effectiveness of the mock-up. If there are flaws in the mock-up, then it will manifest itself in the last stage on a much larger scale.

Most organisations and teams rely on mock-ups to convey the efficacy of the final product. Making changes in a mock-up is easier than doing the same on a prototype. It is also pertinent to understand that a mock-up is still a set of drawing on a system. A prototype is a three-dimensional model made out of materials which one can feel. It is also the final product before approval. For software teams, the prototype is the website or the application which would go live if no changes are to be made.

The Tools

There are plenty of tools for Wireframing, mock-ups and prototyping. Mock plus and Balsamiq are useful tools to create wireframes and mock-ups. They are easy to use and have a free version too. These tools can be used to quickly create wireframes and mock-ups of apps and websites that can be then presented to the concerned party. They are user friendly and has plenty of options to play around with. Simple drag and drop functionalities allow users to create examples in the shortest possible time.

However, if you are looking at the interactive design, then Balsamiq will be of no use. You would then have to move to the next level of designing which would involve Photoshop, illustrator, Adobe XD and Sketch. These tools create interactive designs which then can be incorporated in the project.

It needs to be understood that each of these tools has its pros and cons. One has to experiment and do a bit of hard-hitting. Only then would a design come to life and assist the individual or the team in building products that will mesmerise.

One way to understand the difference between wireframe mock-up and prototype is the absence of clickables.

The former two will not have any clickables while the latter will. This is more relevant in the case of a software product. Prototypes will have clickables where the client will check the flow of the project. This difference is the biggest advantage a prototype has over any other design stage.

Final Words

When a question as pertinent as what is the difference between wireframe mock-up and prototype is asked, a basic understanding of design philosophy has to be stated. Once that is understood it becomes easy for every individual and the entire team is then on the same page.

The design team too is composed of different sections who specialise in the separate factors of designing. All the sections work in unison to create a final mock-up which is then released to the prototyping team.

However, in all this, it will be unfair to overlook the initial sketch that started it all. That was the beginning of the entire saga.

As we can see every cog in the wheel is important. One misstep and the entire premise will fall flat.

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