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Wireframe vs Mockup vs Prototype - Key Differences [2024]

Last updated on
May 17, 2024


Wireframe, Mockup and Prototype are different phases of product design

The product design process starts with a simple sketch on a blank piece of paper. Then, wireframe is create to organize the content and features of your app. The next step is to add colors, icons, pictures, and logos to the wireframe so the mockup is created. The process is finished by bringing the mockup to life with interactive elements.


Wireframe vs Mockup vs Prototype - Key Differences [2024]

Wireframe vs mockup vs prototype

You often hear terms like sketch, wireframes, mockups, and prototypes when working with a web development company, but do you really understand what these terms mean? Would you know when to use a wireframe or when to go with a prototype?

Let’s begin with the reasons why you should start with a sketch, wireframe, mockup or even prototype as you begin:

  1. To brainstorm or figure out what you want to build. They are designed to help you define your expectations.
  2. Save money on developers and describe clearly what you need to get built.
  3. Use them to pitch investors, first customers, and co-founders.

It’s crucial for you to distinguish these terms as you communicate with a development team.

Based on our experience, 2-3 calls and approximately 2.5 hours of business analysis are needed to discover what exactly needs to be built. While mockups take a minimum of 5-8 hours for a simple mobile app.

Wireframe, mockup, prototype comparison

What does the design process of designing an app look like?

The graph below shows all stages of the typical design process, which often constitutes a part of a more extensive Product Design Sprint. It is essential to follow these steps each time you create a new product.

Process of creating sketch, wireframe, mockup or prototype

What's the difference between sketch, wireframe, mockup, and prototype?

#1 Sketch

It's basically just a raw freehand drawing on a piece of paper, that gives you a low-fidelity representation of your app. It is the fastest way to get your idea ready for brainstorming. Even a simple sketch can describe your idea better than words. Generate ideas, change details, visualize what you have on your mind; it's all up to your imagination. This step is essential for getting to the wireframe stage and is often preceded by a Discovery stage.

My favorite tool to do it: Pen and templates on paper.

#2 What is a wireframe?

A wireframe is equivalent to the skeleton or simple structure of your website/app, and it is quick and easy to create wireframes to experiment with design possibilities. Wireframes allow you to generate and visualize design ideas, focusing on functionality and user flows rather than aesthetics. Each one is used to describe the functionality of a product as well as relations between views (what will happen when you click a certain button). The decisions on what (content/features) and where to put on the website or app are usually made during this stage. This step does not cover the product’s design.

My favorite tool to do it: Balsamiq

When to use:

  • Early design phase: When you need to plan the layout and basic structure of a project.
  • Conceptual planning: To quickly communicate ideas and concepts to team members and stakeholders.
  • Content hierarchy: To establish the hierarchy of content and functional elements.
  • User flow: To map out user flow and interaction pathways.
  • Feedback on layout: To get early feedback on the layout before investing time in detailed design.

#3 What is a mockup? Visual elements

At Brainhub, we never start building an app before mockups are completed. With this representation, you can start to work on the development process and the developer can make your mockups a reality by adding detailed design elements like colors, images, fonts, and typography. Mockups incorporate high-fidelity visual elements to create a realistic and inspiring depiction of the brand's visual identity. Any mockup will provide a medium-fidelity representation. Add colors, fonts, text (Lorem ipsum), images, logos and anything else that will shape your wireframe. Your result is a static map of the app. Think about User Interface Practices while shaping this step. If you don’t have the ability to move your wireframes to the next stage, just outsource it.

My favorite tool to do it: Sketch

When to use:

  • Mid to late design phase: When the basic structure is approved, and you need to refine the visual aspects.
  • Detailed design: To provide a detailed design that includes graphics, visual style, and branding elements.
  • Presentation to stakeholders: When you need to present a realistic view of the final product to stakeholders for approval.
  • Design specification: To serve as a reference for developers during the development phase.

#4 High fidelity prototypes

Prototypes offer a high-fidelity representation of your app, and creating prototypes is essential for usability testing and capturing real data from user inputs. High-fidelity prototypes include color, text, and other content, and often take the form of a fully functioning and coded website or app. It’s like a mockup enriched with UX pieces, interactions, animation and anything else you’d like to experience when clicking buttons. This step is not always needed to create an app. If you’re not a developer, I highly recommend having a prototype to pitch your idea to friends, family and potential investors. The only thing that is missing is functionality. It can give you a feeling of using a real app, but they are only images connected with each other.

Prototypes are used for user testing to show how users would interact with a website or app, focusing on the user journey and linking screens, components, and elements for issue resolution. Gathering user feedback with a prototype helps in learning and refining the product's usability, playing a crucial role in identifying issues and making design decisions.

Get feedback from your customers with a prototype and measure.

My favorite tool to do it: UXPin

When to use:

  • Usability testing: When you need to test the functionality and user experience with actual users.
  • Design validation: To validate design decisions by simulating real user interactions.
  • Stakeholder approval: When presenting to stakeholders, allowing them to experience the interactive aspects of the design.
  • Development handoff: To provide developers with a clear understanding of how the product should behave.

Cheat sheet: when to use wireframe vs mockup vs prototype

  1. Wireframe:
    • Early in the design process.
    • To outline the basic structure and layout.
    • For initial brainstorming and conceptualization.
    • When seeking feedback on layout and user flow.
  2. Mockup:
    • After wireframes are approved.
    • To refine visual design and details.
    • For stakeholder presentations and design approvals.
    • As a visual reference for developers.
  3. Prototype:
    • After mockups are created.
    • For usability testing and user feedback.
    • To validate design interactions and functionality.
    • During stakeholder presentations for a more realistic experience.
    • To guide developers on interactive elements and user flows.

More resources: User Testing

  • Guide to prototyping for non-designers
  • Presentation from UXPin about the same topic -> here,
  • Insightful discussion on Quora about the difference between wireframe, mockup, and prototype -> here,
  • Another discussion on the same topic -> here.

Final word

One picture is more than a thousand words. Below you can see the major difference between wireframes and mockups, which are crucial steps towards creating a polished final product.

High-fidelity mockups and prototypes are essential for visualizing the finished product before development begins.

Difference between Wireframe and Mockup

Frequently Asked Questions

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Marta Lichaj
Head of Design

UX/UI designer with 11 years of professional experience. Loves holistic design, interested in UX strategy and Lean UX.

Bianka Pluszczewska
Tech Editor

Software development enthusiast with 8 years of professional experience in this industry.

Marta Lichaj
Head of Design

UX/UI designer with 11 years of professional experience. Loves holistic design, interested in UX strategy and Lean UX.

Bianka Pluszczewska
Tech Editor

Software development enthusiast with 8 years of professional experience in this industry.

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