They say a craftsperson is only as good as his or her tools, and like a good carpenter's saw, wireframing tools are a UX designer's best friend.
However, just like the saws you'll find in any hardware store, there is an almost bewildering array of wireframing tools available to today's designers. And, as with the tools in a hardware store, not all wireframing tools are created equal.
In this post, we'll be taking a look at some of the factors you should consider when choosing a wireframing tool for your next UX design project. We'll be examining these tools from a software-agnostic perspective; we'll be paying closer attention to how these tools fit into UX workflows rather than to the differences in the individual tools and functions offered by the tools themselves.
Identifying the Purpose of Your UX Design Project
The very first thing you should do before evaluating a new UX wireframing tool is to identify the scope of your project and the purposes of your wireframes.
The purpose of the wireframes you'll be designing with your shiny new wireframing tool will dictate the complexity of the finished product and, by extension, the tool you should use to get the job done. You wouldn't go to a hardware store to buy power tools without a good idea of what you want to do with them, and you shouldn't invest in a new wireframing tool until you have an excellent idea of what you want to build with that tool.
Let's say you're building a prototype in the hopes of landing a new client. In this scenario, a robust, fully featured prototyping tool that supports high-fidelity designs and can handle complex logic flows will likely be a better choice than a lightweight wireframing tool with limited functionality. On the other hand, if you're just hacking together big-picture ideas for an internal brainstorming session, you probably won't need as many bells and whistles and may be able to get by with simple diagrams or even pen-and-paper wireframes.
How Will Your Mock-ups Be Used?
Something else to consider during this phase is how your prototypes will actually be used. If you're mocking up designs for the web, you'll probably need a wireframing tool that can export to HTML for production testing. You may also need a tool that supports layer-based mock-ups in Photoshop to incorporate existing design assets. Similarly, if you're developing a prototype of a mobile app, you'll likely need a tool that offers a native testing environment for the operating system you're developing for.
Knowing what you want to do with your prototypes ahead of time will make it much easier to identify a wireframing tool that meets your needs—and your budget.
Choosing a Wireframing Tool That Fits Your Design Workflow
The next consideration that will affect your choice of wireframing tool is your current prototyping workflow. Before you start looking at specific tools, it's worth asking yourself some questions as a starting point:
- Will you need to be able to collaborate with other UX designers, or can you work solo?
- Does the wireframing tool need to be able to capture or record user feedback?
- Do you need pre-built UI kits or libraries for different operating system environments?
- Are your layouts static, or do your wireframes and prototypes need to be responsive?
If you're a freelance UX designer who typically works alone, you probably won't need to invest in a collaborative wireframing tool. Similarly, if you're designing wireframes for other designers, you'll probably find that simpler wireframes will be as effective as a high-fidelity prototype.
It's also worth thinking about your current work environment when choosing a wireframing tool. Besides the obvious distinction between Windows, MacOS, or Linux operating systems, it's worth considering whether a browser-based tool will meet your needs, or whether you need a native desktop client. Do you need a tool that runs on your smartphone or tablet? What about third-party integrations?
Something else to consider is your actual asset-creation process. Some tools, such as Sketch, allow you to create simple buttons and icons directly within Sketch, which can be very helpful for mocking up rudimentary designs quickly. If you're not comfortable designing assets from scratch using tools like Photoshop and Illustrator, be sure to check that the tools you're evaluating have the functionality you need.
Remember, wireframing tools are just that—tools. Be sure to consider how (and where) you work when choosing a new wireframing tool, and ensure that the product you choose aligns with your existing design workflow.
Anticipating Your Future Design Needs
If you're thinking of switching to another wireframing tool, the chances are pretty decent that you already have at least some of the desired functionality in mind. That said, anticipating your future needs is essential if you're considering making an investment in higher-end wireframing and prototyping software.
Wireframing and prototyping is often an iterative process. You design simple wireframes, gather feedback, and adjust your subsequent designs accordingly. As your designs become increasingly complex—and wireframes become prototypes—the tools you use need to be able to handle increasingly complex design challenges, such as edge cases and error handling.
That's why it's important to consider what you might need from a wireframing or prototyping tool in the future, not just for your next project. For example, are you likely to need to produce wireframes for multiple screen resolutions in the future? Not all wireframing tools support this kind of functionality. Similarly, if you're trying to think of ways to provide greater value to your clients, you might want to offer user-experience testing as part of your services, in which case you'll need a more robust prototyping tool like Proto.io.
In many cases, it may be worth investing in a more advanced tool that can handle a greater variety of design tasks. After all, it's usually better to have a tool and not need it than to need a tool and not have it.
Pricing and Budgeting for UX Wireframing Tools
The final consideration you'll have to figure out is how much you can afford to spend on wireframing software.
Like many software products, many wireframing and prototyping tools utilize a subscription model rather than selling one-off software licenses. One advantage of subscription-based tools is that the barriers to entry are a little lower. Even for cash-strapped indie designers, a monthly subscription of $20 is much more manageable than coming up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a software license. (Remember when licenses of Adobe Photoshop used to cost almost $1,000?)
Only you can determine an acceptable sum for your new wireframing tool. Some products, such as Adobe's XD wireframing-to-prototyping tool, are completely free to use. Subscriptions to other tools, such as Sketch, begin at $99 per year, or a little more than $8 per month. Most subscription-based wireframing tools are priced at between $12 and $20 per month, and most can be renewed month to month with no contracts.
Something to bear in mind is that even higher-priced tools may offer a free trial period so you can properly evaluate the product. Be sure to explore tools' functionality thoroughly, especially before committing to a purchase.
Not All (Wireframing) Tools Are Created Equal
Although there are plenty of factors to think about when choosing a new wireframing or prototyping tool, it usually comes down to a simple equation of features vs. cost. If you can work with a simple, web-based free tool, go for it. If you feel you need more advanced functionality, it may be worth investing in a more robust product.
Whichever tool you end up choosing, the most important thing to remember is that a tool is just that—a means to an end. Don't feel pressured to invest in a fully featured wireframing tool just because large design teams use them, and make sure whichever tool you choose is right for you and your design work.