Usability Engineering: Why Wireframes, Prototypes, and Specifications Matter

Published: May 16th, 2011 by Taj V.



Designing a website without usability testing is like building a boat without a blueprint. You’ll make something, but whether it floats is a different matter.

Usability testing fascinates me; in fact, I’m enrolled in grad school at DePaul University, studying for an MS in Human-Computer Interaction. And when I heard some debates recently about whether current usability tools were still valid, I took notice. The crux of the issue seemed to be the value of wireframes vs. prototypes, and whether technical specification documents are necessary.

As someone who believes that a focus on usability should be the focus of building a successful web site or application, I definitely had an opinion. I believe that each of these tools has a distinct place in today’s web development cycle. And as a web developer who handles new projects daily, I’ve seen firsthand how these tools expedite development time and directly reduce the number of bugs found and revisions required after development.

Let’s take a look at how each of these tools works.

  • Wireframes – Wireframes are basic layouts for a site or application. The goal of this phase of usability testing is to focus on determining the basic information architecture and interaction design for a site, without the distractions of interactivity or design elements like color, font, and images. By removing these elements, the development team can focus on the best possible placement for the individual elements of the site or application. They can also begin to think about options for interaction design.
  • Prototypes – Prototypes are beta versions of a site or application that allow information flow and interaction testing. The actual functionality of a site isn’t implemented. However, a user can click through interfaces to get an idea how a site will look and feel. By getting feedback from project stakeholders at this stage and making needed changes, you avoid the difficulty and cost of making revisions after development has taken place.
  • Technical Specification Document – This document combines the information flow, interaction design, and functionality decisions reached during the wireframe and prototype phases of development. It’s presented to the site developers along with other tools generated during usability engineering, giving them a complete, accurate understanding of the site’s usability and functionality requirements. This document also enables clear communication between stakeholders (agency, client, users, designers, and developers) regarding what functionality is expected for each interface.

From my perspective, all three of these tools are essential. They enable a reasonably pain-free development process, and significantly cut down on revision and rework. One small change made during usability testing can save literally days of time and struggle — and beau-coup dollars — later in the process.

So for now, I’m sold on these tools. I’ll be ready to learn about better ones as I continue my studies, but for now, they’ll stay in my tool belt.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Atomic Interactive