Against Wireframes

Yesterday I led a bright and engaged group of folks through my Information Architecture Essentials workshop. Most of them were new to the discipline, and wanting to know more. We talked about many things, but had an especially active discussion about wireframes. I don’t like them and haven’t used them in my work for a long time. I thought it worthwhile to document my reasons here, in case it helps anyone.

Wireframes are a design artifact that has long been associated with information architecture. I’ve heard people ask to be “sent the IA” meaning they expect something that looks either like a sitemap and/or a set of wireframes. I consider these “deliverables” to be tools from a prior — more “waterfall” — era of web design and mostly a waste of time today, if not outright misleading. (I include sitemaps in this statement, even though I’m focusing on wireframes here.)

Although I’m sure it’s been written about at length (and better) elsewhere, here are some reasons why I don’t like them:

  • Wireframes are too abstract and not abstract enough. Wireframes are an attempt to explore the relationships between elements in a screen. Often this includes the relative visual priority of things. However, they attempt to extract aesthetics (the “visual design”) from these visual explorations. As a result,
  • Wireframes confuse stakeholders. I think of design artifacts as tools that allow people — both designers and stakeholders — to make design decisions. Wireframes are mostly clear designers, but not to stakeholders. Asking folks to comment on the relative hierarchy of elements in a visual document while also asking them to ignore the aesthetics of the thing is a tall order.
  • Wireframes are ineffective as decision-making tools. Visual design affects the perception of the relationship of elements on the screen. Font and color choices affect the relative prominence of elements. More abstract wireframes fail to convey these important distinctions. On the flip side, less abstract wireframes are close enough to visual design to derail the conversation towards the lack of aesthetic nuance. As a result, wireframes are seldom effective in helping people make design decisions.
  • “But,” you may protest, “we don’t use wireframes to make decisions. We use them to convey decisions to developers.” Alas, wireframes are also ineffective as design documentation. Wireframes require more effort to produce and maintain than lower fidelity artifacts (like freehand sketches.) Evolution of the design seldom stops when the wireframe deck is complete, leading to either the deck becoming outdated or — worse — design being “fixed” because the wireframe deck is now “signed off.”
  • Wireframes give the impression that things are more polished than they are. I’ve seen designers present early-stage ideas as wireframes. (Perhaps because some folks are uncomfortable drawing freehand?) These artifacts can look very clean and beautiful, leading the viewer to assume that the ideas they present have been thought-through. Often they haven’t.
  • Wireframes are relatively expensive to produce. Given that so many organizations are using design systems these days, building a comp using a tool such as Sketch isn’t that much more work than making a more abstract artifact such as a wireframe.

So what’s a better way of doing it? I prefer freehand drawings, which allow designers to vary the fidelity of artifacts on the fly. Nobody confuses a freehand drawing with a more polished artifact. Freehand drawings are fast, cheap, and disposable; if somebody has a great new idea, you can draw it on the spot. Yes, this requires that designers learn to draw. (I’m still astonished that some people protest this; communicating visually is essential to design work.)

My preferred way of sketching freehand is to use the Concepts app on the iPad Pro. This app treats the lines I draw on the screen as vector-based “ink”; I can select sets of lines and copy them, paste them, delete them, stretch them, mirror them, etc. This allows me to reuse elements (such as window chrome) across drawings, speeding up the process tremendously. Concepts also allows me to share drawings directly to Slack, email, or other channels. The result: very tight feedback loops that enable the design process to move much faster.

What if you’re communicating design intent to developers? In that case, comps or prototypes do a better job than wireframes. It’s not unusual for developers to ask to be sent Sketch files so they can pull out things like colors and element sizes.

Of course, there may be exceptions to all of this. Some teams may have particular circumstances that allow them to move fast using wireframes. Some industries may require them as official documentation. But in my experience, they aren’t very effective. If you’re a stakeholder, don’t waste time and money by asking your designers to create wireframes. And if you’re a designer, learn the basic principles of drawing by hand (such as the use of distinct line weights, how to start and end lines, etc.) You’ll get better results faster.

How to Understand a Complex Subject

Sometimes you need to understand a complex subject. When first getting into it, you’re faced lots of new concepts and ideas, unfamiliar language, unexpected connections between terms, etc. There’s lots of information to digest. Where do you start? How do you make sense of it all?

Understanding complex subjects is a meta-skill: a skill that helps you become better at acquiring other skills. When you hone your ability to understand, learning new things becomes easier. Improving your sense-making skills is a powerful boost for your effectiveness.

Concept mapping is the best practice I’ve found for making sense of complex subjects. A concept map is a visual representation of the relationships between concepts that affect a particular problem or domain. In contrast to a linear exposition of the subject, a concept map lets you pick the starting point for your investigation and allows you to see details in the context of the big picture. A well-crafted map achieves the goal Richard Saul Wurman laid out for information architects: to help others find their own paths to knowledge.

The best conceptual mapper I know is Hugh Dubberly. The Dubberly Design Office website has an entire section dedicated to showcasing their beautiful and insightful maps. These maps are inspiring — and also a bit intimidating. But concept maps mustn’t be elaborate or polished to be valuable.

A post on the DDO blog shows you how to create your own concept maps. I use this approach with my students and in my professional work; it’s the best way I’ve found to understand complex subjects.

Managing Screen Time

One of the best features of the most recent version of iOS is called Screen Time. It allows you to monitor and control what you do with your mobile devices and when. For example, you can find out how much time you’re spending on social media apps and whether your usage is increasing or decreasing. You can also set limits for yourself on the device overall or on a per-app basis. And if you use multiple iOS devices (such as an iPad and an iPhone) you can configure Screen Time to show you your behavior across all of them.

To access Screen Time, you must open the device’s Settings app. (This feels a bit incongruous. Although I understand this is an OS-level feature, it feels like something that should be independent of Settings. Anyways, I digress.) In the Settings app you’ll see an option for Screen Time:

If you tap on this menu item, you’ll be shown a screen that looks like this:

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A Stowable TV

Managing kids’ screen time is a challenge. My wife and I cut the cable close to 7 years ago, so my children haven’t grown up in a traditional (read: advertising-supported) TV household. While we still owned a television, our screen time has been much more intentional.The last time we moved, we took an even bolder step: We got rid of the television altogether. In its stead, we bought an LCD projector and a soundbar. During the school year, we keep the projector stowed during most of the week. We bring it out Friday evenings for family movie nights, which happen every weekend evening unless we have other plans. The projector goes back into storage on Monday mornings. (The soundbar remains in the living room; it doubles as our sound system using Airplay.)

This approach has turned what would’ve previously been an individual attention suck into a family event we can all enjoy together. It satisfies the need for the kids to be into media without becoming beholden to the tube. (At least until they’re old enough to demand their own smartphones. Alas, the rumblings have already started in my household.)

In Praise of Email, Which I Want Less Of

For many people today, most work happens in information environments. Much of it consists of collaborating on and coordinating activities. In other words, it requires communicating with other people. There are various ways for people to communicate in information environments. Email is one of the oldest. It’s also one of the best.

You can set communications channels on a continuum based on latency. On one end of this continuum, you have face-to-face communication, which is very low-latency. When somebody says something to you in your presence, you get what they’re saying almost as soon as the words leave their mouth. In many cases, there’s also a social expectation that you will reply right then and there. Long pauses can be awkward; you must respond even if it is to say, “I need a minute.” Face-to-face oral communication is what we call a synchronous channel — the back-and-forth between participants happens in “real time.”

On the other end of the continuum are communications channels that don’t carry such expectations, mostly for technical reasons. For example, if you send a question on a (physical) postcard to your friend halfway around the world, you know that the piece of cardboard that conveys your question will take some time to get to where your friend is. Your friend might read your message a few days from now. If she chooses to respond with a postcard of her own, it too will take several days to reach you. Considerable time will elapse between the time when you issued your question and when you got a reply. Thus, postal mail is what we call an asynchronous communication channel.

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An Example of a Semantic Environment Map

I’ve had folks ask me for examples of a semantic environment map. Here’s one for the confessional, a semantic environment within the broader environment of the Catholic Church:

Did I get it wrong? It’s likely. If you can spot problems, the map is serving its purpose: to help us have discussions about contextual issues that often go unnoticed or unexpressed.

If you want to create a map of your own, you can download a PDF of the Semantic Environment Canvas.