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Illustration for the Priority Guides: A Content-First Alternative to Wireframes article

Illustration by Dougal MacPherson

Priority Guides: A Content-First Alternative to Wireframes

No matter your role, if you’ve ever been involved in a digital design project, chances are you’re familiar with wireframes. After all, they’re among the most popular and widely used tools when designing websites, apps, dashboards, and other digital user interfaces.

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But they do have their problems, and wireframes are so integrated into the accepted way of working that many don’t consider those drawbacks. That’s a shame, because the tool’s downsides can seriously undermine user-centricity. Ever lose yourself in aesthetic details when you should have been talking about content and functionality? We have!

That’s why we use an alternative that avoids the pitfalls of wireframes: the priority guide. It not only keeps our process user-centered and creates more valuable designs for our users (whether used alongside wireframes or as a direct replacement), it’s also improved team engagement, collaboration, and design workflows.

The problem with wireframes

Wikipedia appropriately defines the wireframe as “a visual guide that represents the skeletal framework of a website. … [It] depicts the page layout or arrangement of the website’s content, including interface elements and navigational systems.” In other words, wireframes are sketches that represent the potential website (or app) in a simplified way, including the placement and shape of any interface elements. They range from low-fidelity rough sketches on paper to high-fidelity colored, textual screens in a digital format.

A sketched out wireframe, and one designed with software
Examples of low-fidelity (on the left) and high-fidelity (on the right) wireframes

Because of their visual nature, wireframes are great tools for sketching and exploring design ideas, as well as communicating those ideas to colleagues, clients, and stakeholders. And since they’re so easy to create and adapt with tools such as Sketch or Balsamiq, you also have something to user test early in the design process, allowing usability issues to be addressed sooner than might otherwise be possible.

But although these are all valuable characteristics of wireframes, there are also some significant downsides.

The illusion of final design

Wireframes can provide the illusion that a design is final, or at least in a late stage of completion. Regardless of how carefully you explain to clients or stakeholders that these first concepts are just early explorations and not final—maybe you even decorated them with big “DRAFT” stickers—too often they’ll still enthusiastically exclaim, “Looks good, let’s start building!”

Killing creativity and engagement

At Mirabeau, we’ve noticed that wireframes tend to kill creativity. We primarily work in multidisciplinary teams consisting of (among others) interaction (UX) designers, visual designers, front-end developers, and functional testers. But once an interaction designer has created a wireframe, it’s hard for many (we’re not saying all) visual designers to think outside the boundaries set by that wireframe and challenge the ideas it contains. As a result, the final designs almost always resemble the wireframes. Their creativity impaired, the visual designers were essentially just coloring in the wireframes.

Undermining user-centricity

As professionals, we naturally care about how something looks and is presented. So much so that we can easily lose ourselves for hours in the fine details, such as alignment, sizing, coloring, and the like, even on rough wireframes intended only for internal use. Losing time means losing focus on what’s valuable for your user: the content, the product offering, and the functionality.

Static, not responsive

A wireframe (even multiple wireframes) can’t capture the responsive behavior that is so essential to modern web design. Even though digital design tools are catching up in efficiently designing for different screen sizes (here’s hoping InVision Studio will deliver), each of the resulting wireframes is still just a static image.

Inconvenient for developers and functional testers

Developers and functional testers work with code, and a wireframe sketch or picture provides little functional information and isn’t directly translatable into code (not yet, anyway). This lack of clarity around how the design should behave can lead to developers and testers making decisions about functionality or responsiveness without input from the designer, or having to frequently check with the designer to find out if a feature is working correctly. Perhaps less of a problem for a mature team or project where there’s plenty of experience with, and knowledge of, the product, but all too often this (unnecessary) collaboration means more development work, a slower process, and wasted time.

To overcome these wireframe pitfalls, about five years ago we adopted priority guides. Our principal interaction designer, Paul Versteeg, brought the tool to Mirabeau, and we’ve been improving and fine-tuning our way of working with them ever since, with great results.

So what are priority guides?

As far as we know, credit for the invention of priority guides goes to Drew Clemens, who first introduced the concept in his article on the Smashing Magazine website in 2012. Since that time, however, it seems that priority guides have received little attention, either from the web and app design industry or within related education establishments.

Simply put, a priority guide contains content and elements for a mobile screen, sorted by hierarchy from top to bottom and without layout specifications. The hierarchy is based on relevance to users, with the content most critical to satisfying user needs and supporting user (and company) goals higher up.

The format of a priority guide is not fixed: it can be digital (we personally prefer Sketch), or it can be physical, made with paper and Post-its. Most importantly, a priority guide is automatically content-first, with a strong focus on providing best value for users.

Chart listing components from high priority to low: Main Content, Less Important Content, Least Important Content
The core structure of a priority guide

Diving a bit deeper, the following example shows the exact same page as shown in the wireframe images presented earlier in this article. It consists of the title “Book a flight,” real content (yes, even the required legal notice!), several sections of information, and annotations that explain components and functionality.

A graphic showing a rough flight overview page with functionality and links defined
A detailed digital priority guide for an airline’s flight overview page

When comparing the content to the high-fidelity wireframe, you’ll notice that the order of the sections is not the same. The step indicator, for example, is shown at the bottom of the priority guide, as the designer decided it’s not the most important information on the page. Conversely, the most important information—flight information and prices—is now placed near the top.

Annotations are an important part of priority guides, as they provide explanations of the functionalities and page behavior, name the component types, and link the priority guide of one page to the priority guides of other pages. In this example, you can find descriptions of what happens when a user interacts with a button or link, such as opening a layover screen to display flight details or loading a a flight selection page.

The advantages of priority guides

Of course, we can debate for hours whether the creator of, or team responsible for, the above priority guide has chosen the correct priorities and functionalities, but that goes beyond the scope of this article. Instead, let’s name the main advantages that priority guides offer over wireframes.

Suitable for responsive design

Wireframes are static images, requiring multiple screenshots to cover the full spectrum from mobile to desktop. Priority guides, on the other hand, give an overview of content hierarchy regardless of screen size (assuming user goals remain the same on different devices). Ever since responsive design became standard practice within Mirabeau, priority guides have been an essential addition to our design toolkit.

Focused on solving problems and serving needs

When creating priority guides, you automatically focus on solving the users’ problems, serving their needs, and supporting them to reach their goals. The interface is always filled with content that communicates a message or helps the user. By designing content-first, you’re always focused on serving the user.

No time wasted on aesthetics and layout

There’s no need for interaction designers to waste time on aesthetics and layout in the early phases of the design process. Priority guides help avoid the focus shifting away from the content and user toward specific layout elements too early, and keep us from falling into the “designer trap” of visual perfectionism.

Facilitating visual designers’ creativity

Priority guides provide the opportunity for designers to explore extravagant ideas on how to best support and delight the user without visual boundaries set by interaction designers. Even when you’re the only designer on your team, working as both interaction and visual designer, it’s hard to move past how those first wireframes looked, even when confronted with new content.

Developers and testers get “HTML” early in the process

The structure of a priority guide is very similar to HTML, allowing the developer to start laying the groundwork for future development early on. Similarly, testers get a checklist for testing, allowing them to begin building those tests straight away. The result is early feedback on the feasibility of the designs, and we’ve found priority guides have significantly speeded up the collaborative process of design and development at Mirabeau.

How to create priority guides

There are a number of baselines and steps that we’ve found useful when creating priority guides. We’ve fine-tuned them over the years as we’ve applied this new approach to our projects, and conducted workshops explaining priority guides to the Dutch design community.

The baselines

Your priority guide should only contain real content that’s relevant to the user. Lorem ipsum, or any other type of placeholder text, doesn’t communicate how the page supports users in reaching their goals. Moreover, don’t include any layout elements when making priority guides. Instead, include only content and functionality. Remember that a priority guide is never a deliverable—it’s merely a tool to facilitate discussion among the designers, developers, testers, and stakeholders involved in the project.

Priority guides should always have a mobile format. By constraining yourself this way, you automatically think mobile-first and consider which information is most important (and so should be at the top of the screen). Also, since the menu is typically more or less the same on every screen of your website or app, we recommend leaving the menu out of your priority guide. It’ll help you focus on the screen you’re designing for, and the guide won’t be cluttered with unnecessary distractions.

Step 1: determine the goal(s)

Before jumping to the solution, it’s important to take a step back and consider why you’re making this priority guide. What is the purpose of the page? What goal or goals does the user have? And what goal or goals does the business have? The answers to these questions will both guide your user research and determine which content will add more value to users and the business, and so have higher priority.

Step 2: research and understand the user

There are many methods for user research, and the method or methods chosen will largely depend on the situation and project. However, when creating priority guides, we’ve definitely found it useful to generate personas, affinity diagrams, and experience maps to help create a visual summary of any research findings.

Step 3: determine the content topics

The aim of this stage is to use your knowledge of the user and the business to determine which specific content and topics will best support their goals in each phase of the customer journey. Experience has taught us that co-creating this content outline with users, clients, copywriters, and stakeholders can be highly beneficial. The result is a list of topics that each page should contain.

Step 4: create a high-level priority guide

Use the list of topics to create a high-level priority guide. Which is the most important topic? Place that one on the top. Which is the second most important topic? That one goes below the first. It’s a straightforward prioritization process that should be continued until all the (relevant) topics have found a place in the priority list. It’s important to question the importance of each topic, not only in comparison to other topics, but also whether the topic should really be on the page at all. And we’ve found that starting on paper definitely helps avoid focusing too much on the little visual details, which can happen if using a digital design tool (“pixel-fixing”).

Graphic showing a priority guide with the page title, goal, and a prioritized list of content
A high-level priority guide for FreeBees, a fictional company

Step 5: create a detailed priority guide

Now it’s time to start adding the details. For each topic, determine the detailed, real content that will appear on the page. Also, start thinking about any functionalities the page may need. When you have multiple priority guides for multiple pages, indicate how and where these pages are connected in a sitemap format.

We often use this first schematic shape of the product to identify flows, test if the concept is complete, and determine whether the current content and priorities effectively serve users’ needs and help solve their problems. More than once it has allowed us to identify that a content plan needed to be altered to achieve the outcome we were targeting. And because priority guides are quick and easy to produce, iterating at this stage saved a lot of time and effort.

A priority guide showing the page title, goal, and a prioritized list of content along with notes on what role each piece plays (i.e. - heading, call to action, etc.)
A detailed priority guide for FreeBees, a fictional company

Step 6: user testing and (further) iteration

The last (continuous) step involves testing and iterating your priority guides. Ask users what they think about the information presented in the priority guides (yes, it is possible to do usability testing with priority guides!), and gather feedback from stakeholders. The input gained from these sessions can then be used to validate and reprioritize the information, and to add or adapt functionalities, followed by further testing as needed.

Find out what works for you

Over the years we’ve seen many variations on the process described above. Some designers work entirely with paper and Post-its, while others prefer to create priority guides in a digital design tool from scratch. Some go no further than high-level priority guides, while others use detailed priority guides as a guideline for their entire project.

The key is to experiment, and take the time to find out which approach works best for you and your team. What remains important no matter your process, however, is the need to always keep the focus on user and business goals, and to continuously ask yourself what each piece of content or functionality adds to these goals.

Conclusion

For us here at Mirabeau, priority guides have become a highly efficient tool for designing user-first, content-first, and mobile-first, overcoming many of the significant pitfalls that come from relying only on wireframes. Wireframes do have their uses, and in many situations it’s valuable to be able to visualize ideas and discuss them with team members, clients, or stakeholders. Sketching concepts as wireframes to test ideas can also be useful, and sometimes we’ll even generate wireframes to gain new insights into how to improve our priority guides!

Overall, we’ve found that priority guides are more useful at the start of a project, when in the phase of defining the purpose and content of screens. Wireframes, on the other hand, are more useful for sketching and communicating ideas and visual concepts. Just don’t start with wireframes, and make sure you always stay focused on what’s important.

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