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Tips to ensure your wireframing efforts aren’t wasted in vain

Wireframes are an invaluable tool in our development lifecycle. For those unfamiliar, a wireframe is a low fidelity mockup of the user interface. Wireframes are great because they describe how the user interface (software, web page etc.) is going to look and feel without investing a lot of effort on the final graphic design.

Wireframes coupled with sitemaps, user personas, and flowcharts form our Architecture and Design Document (A&DD) which helps to focus project stakeholders on the most important details about their target user and what their user experience is going to be.

An effective A&DD establishes consensus among project stakeholders, information architects (IA), copywriters, developers, quality assurance specialists and graphic designers. When done properly, the final software deliverable should mirror the A&DD exactly.

Here are a few tips to ensure your IA/wireframing efforts aren’t wasted in vain:

Focus on critical features first, then the nice-to-haves

While it may be tempting to document every facet of the user interface, it’s best to focus on critical functions and features. Critical features are those directly related to the project’s objectives. For instance, an ecommerce project may require that shopping cart system be entirely overhauled. In this case, it makes more sense to sufficiently detail the shopping cart wireframes rather than focusing on a contact form, which is likely less critical. Focusing on the critical features ensure that the IA budget is used effectively and reinforces that you understand of what is important to the stakeholder and user.

Build your library of interfaces

Having a library of common user interfaces is a useful asset. It helps expedite the documentation process and ensures consistency. It never makes sense to reproduce efforts, especially when wireframing common elements like a login page for Drupal or a weekly poll module. Building and maintaining a library is not difficult, especially when using a tool like Visio or Omnigraffle. Omnigraffle has excellent support for creating and modifying stencils. When an A&DD is produced, make an effort to update your stencils with anything new, and ensure that they’re shared with the IA team. There are also several places where you can download premade stencils. The Yahoo! Design Stencil Kit contains many useful patterns found in the Yahoo! Design Pattern Library.

Don’t wireframe things that aren’t going to change

If you’re engaged in a redevelopment effort, be sure to clarify which features are being changed and which are not. There are many instances where “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies. Users, especially internal or administrative, may already be accustomed to a specific interface to complete their tasks. Save your time and focus on the interfaces people gripe about the most. Chances are if they haven’t mentioned an interface in a requirements gathering session, it’s not an issue. And if it’s not an issue, don’t include a wireframe for it.

Make sure your graphic design and development team see your wireframes before they go out to stakeholders

Wireframing an interface is an excellent opportunity to push the envelope. It’s easy to prototype some slick enhancements in addition to basic functionality. However, if you’re working with a budget and a fixed number of hours for graphic design and development, it’s probably a good idea to review the A&DD internally before it goes out to project stakeholders for review. What you and your team should be looking for is scope creep. Those fancy enhancements can quickly add up hours. What was estimated at X hours may end up becoming 2X (or more) after building and testing. Meeting with designers and developers is also a good opportunity to share the overall direction for the project. Designers and developers can start thinking about how they’re going to design and build respectively.

In my experience, wireframing can be time consuming. Hopefully, these tips will help you save time and deliver a more valuable, complete document to your stakeholders.

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