I agree and disagree with this piece. Sadly, more disagree than agree. I still use wireframes a lot and have never once questioned their value in my work.
One thing to be very clear about is that wireframes have less value if you’re working on a mature product that already has an established visual design language AND you have a comprehensive design system of assets already setup to accommodate quick UI design within that system. In that case, it’s quite likely that creating fast mockups for early feedback would be just as quick in high-fidelity, eliminating most of the advantage that low-fi wireframes have to offer. From that perspective, you are absolutely right.
However, unless you’re employed by such a company on such a product, you’re likely to work in design situations where you don’t have those visual assets at your fingertips.
I’m a freelance designer, and it’s usually me who will be creating that design system for my clients. But it’s not created until near the end of our project. So at the beginning, when there are NO visual assets (or only outdated ones that will be entirely replaced) wireframes still hold tremendous value as a way to refine content strategy and UX well before we get into UI design.
Just last week I participated in a design sprint to create a prototype of my client’s primary booking flow, so we could test some new ideas with customers before implementing them into a comprehensive web redesign project starting soon. I had 5 days to complete the entire working, hi-fi, UI prototype for testing the next week. I spent the first 3 days on wireframes, the fourth day on UI, and the fifth on interaction/prototyping. Those three days of wireframes were very well received by my client stakeholders, and I can say with certainty that we wouldn’t have gotten to the resulting UI prototype with the same efficiency had we opted to jump straight into UI design and required more revisions at that hi-fi level to nut out the UX.
You also highlighted this value of wireframes that I know to be very valid:
wireframes as a tool for detailed documentation of interactions without the additional overhead of visual design.
I’ve been in multiple situation where I’ve helped clients conceptualise brand-new products (or drastic redesigns or expansions of existing products), and my wireframes became the development brief. They used that low-fi work to scope and cost the development, and I used it to scope and cost the remainder of the design work. When a product has a lot of unknowns, and it’s up to the designer to be an integral part of that product strategy process, an initial IA and wireframe phase can be a fantastic standalone discovery process that informs the brief for the rest of the project. I can’t think of another way to define that user experience as economically. And if you waited until the hi-fi UI was complete, that’s far too late in the game (hello waterfall).
Sean, you make the argument that wireframing is becoming less necessary for most designers but there are “exceptions” that are “infrequent” for some designers. But you’re writing from a perspective of a very specific type of designer employed at a specific type of company, and that’s a really narrow view of digital product design as a whole. I would posit that wireframes still hold tremendous value for most designers on a great deal of projects, and the context you are in may in fact be the less common exception.