DIY : Wireframes > Words – Jonathan Lai – Medium

This weekend, I had another “aha” moment about the importance of using wireframes as the primary tool to communicate ideas between people.

It happened during a small home renovation project. Really late into the process, my girlfriend and I both realized we were not talking about the same thing!

This happened even though both of us used the same word (“pantry”) to describe a thing we needed built so we could store extra cans of sardines and other weird breakfast foods I am trying out…

At the core, words aren’t precise. And that causes problems.

When I said the word, “pantry”, it came along with a number of assumptions I had about the size of it, the shelves it would have, and the type of door as well. And when my girlfriend used the same word, she applied a different set of assumptions that came along with her own definition.

These differences meant that for a long time, we were both in agreement that we needed a place to put dry foods. But in each of our minds, the look and feel of this pantry was quite different that what the other person thought it was supposed to be.

Luckily, we finally caught our mistake this weekend and had a good laugh about it. And thank goodness construction had not started yet.

The “aha” moment was a wonderful and timely reminder of how hard it is to effectively communicate ideas, especially if you just try to rely on words to do so.

Words are hard

Here is the classic tire swing cartoon that makes me chuckle.

The customer thinks they’ve clearly described what they want — a tire swing. However, every person involved in the project hears something different. The end result is that no one is happy with the end product that is delivered.

I’ve certainly worked on these type of projects before (*cough cough* they usually come with “product requirement documents” or “marketing requirement documents”).

Each time, I come back to the same conclusion.

I believe the culprit is relying too heavily on words to communicate the details of a project. We think we’re being clear, but we’re not. And each day, that causes subtle differences to find their way into the idea, design, and implementation of the project.

The cost of using words

In the grand scheme of things, the financial cost of our mistake for the pantry project would not have been life and death. We would’ve still ended up with a new place to put dry foods. And hopefully, when our friends came over, they would know it was a pantry. But it’s very likely that neither one of us would love the space since it differed from the vision we had in our heads.

Within a company though, the price for this kind of mistake is much more serious. I’ve seen these type of mistakes derail and sink big projects.

It can easily result in wasted development cycles working on things that don’t actually solve problems your customers have. And before long, that can become life and death for the business.

A better way: add wireframes into the mix

A big part of my role as a Product Manager is to test ideas and concepts that will improve the experience of the product. These range from small features that need to be built, to iterations on existing experiences, to internal facing changes, etc.

To start out, I test these ideas on myself. And then I test it out on customers. But ultimately, it’s up to me to share these with the team in a way that I feel confident we are all building towards the same thing.

After working on enough products, I’ve noticed patterns of what works and what doesn’t.

I’ve consistently found that the more that a team tries to communicate ideas and concepts using words (written or spoken), the more that people think they get it but don’t.

Similarly, I’ve found that when teams speak in wireframes, each member has their own “aha” moment much faster. And that’s when the real conversation can start.

Even though the home improvement pantry project was not directly related to product stuff, it was just as valid of a reminder that wireframes are needed.

Common excuse: I’m not a Designer / I don’t know how to wireframe

Can you draw a line? A rectangle? How about a circle? Congrats…you can wireframe!

Pen and paper (or a whiteboard) is all you need.

These old school techniques are by far the fastest way to learn and iterate with.

Sure, your wireframes might look ugly to start out, but they’ll quickly help you sharpen your thinking. When you are forced to draw it out, you’ll think much more along the lines with what your customers will experience if they were to use it. And because of that, you’ll be able to get better quality feedback on it from your customers and stakeholders.

You’ll be surprised about what you can learn AND how fast you can learn it with simple pen and paper prototypes. And that is important because it will help you move your project along faster compared to writing long winded product requirements documents, powerpoint decks, etc.

Do try this at home

The next time you are thinking through a new feature for a product, wireframe it!

And the next time you are meeting with someone to discuss any part of your product, make an effort to use wireframes to guide the conversation.

I hope that you’ll agree that words aren’t a great way to communicate ideas and concepts. But wireframes are!


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