A Wireframe is Worth a Thousand Words

I facilitate an elearning instructional design (ID) practicum for a local university and one of the assignments is to document the ID of the course the participants develop. I cannot provide any I’ve created as an example for the participants in the practicum because all of the ID documentation I’ve created is confidential and proprietary to my former employers and clients. So I searched the World Wide Web for some examples of ID documentation.

I found some respectable examples of ID documentation (PDF). However, they all seemed to have one thing in common with many of the ID documents that participants in my practicum have submitted—they’re heavy with words. Instructional designers often resort to prose, even to document elements that are predominantly visual. However, there are some tools you can use to document visual elements more effectively than you can with words and with less effort.


A wireframe is a simplified representation of a screen. Imagine you were given flexible wire and told to use it to draw the framework of what you want the screen to look like. The result would look very much like a wireframe—thus, the name.

Example of a wireframe
Profilewireframe” by Rob EnslinI4F wireframe: directory profile (v1). Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

I recommend using a wireframe to document what the courseware’s user interface (UI) should look like. It’s an ideal tool for showing placement of buttons, a logo, menus, and other visual elements that recur on every slide in elearning courseware. But as you can see in the example shown above, it can also be used to document the layout of specific content. Imagine how difficult it would be to clearly communicate the appearance of the page in the example shown above using words alone.

Wireframes are not difficult to create. The best tool for creating a wireframe is something like Microsoft Visio. However, if you’re not licensed to use Visio, there’s a tool you can use in software you most likely are licensed to use: Microsoft Office. You’ve probably already used PowerPoint to create slides that are not unlike a wireframe. But even Word has tools you can use to create a wireframe. The Illustrations tool in the Insert ribbon has a Shapes and a SmartArt button that contain just about anything you would need to create a wireframe.


Not to confuse anyone but what most instructional designers call a “storyboard” is actually not a storyboard. It’s typically a table with a variety of information about an elearning screen. However, the erroneous terminology has become so widely used in ID that it is now acceptable to refer to this type of tabular information as a storyboard. Nonetheless, it’s actually an effective way to document ID and I recommend its use in ID documentation—particularly when part of the information included in it is an actual storyboard.

The storyboard gets its name from the design of animations before modern digital technology was used. The animator would draw a series of sketches on boards that together would make up a story. Then the storyboards would be referenced to create the finished animated story in media like film or print. An animated movie or comic strip are classic examples.

As you might imagine, the storyboard is a perfect tool to use to document animated content and interactivities. This is not static content; it changes over time. Begin the storyboard with a representation of the initial appearance of the content. Then add representations of the major changes that occur in the content over time. For an animation, you should document the point in the animation where each of the changes occurs expressed as the number of seconds into the animation. For an interactivity, document which step in positive integers that each change occurs. Also document what action by the learner triggers the change. Any of the other tools presented in this article can be used to represent the content in a storyboard.


A sketch is defined as a rough or unfinished drawing or painting, often made to assist in making a more finished picture. You might think a sketch is old-fashioned for documenting elearning but sketches will never become obsolete. It’s the most direct way to transfer a visual design from an instructional designer’s brain to paper. And the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” applies to a sketch.

You sketch on paper and you document ID on a computer. But the media are easy to bridge. Simply scan the sketch and save it in a digital format like PNG or TIFF. Then the digital file can be inserted into whichever format you use for the ID documentation. It can also be reused in other courses you document with related content.

Sketches are ideal for documenting an illustration to be used in elearning. A sketch can also represent a photograph, whether it be for a photographer to replicate or a developer to search for a similar stock photo. Sketches can be used in a storyboard, as well.


There is an infinite number of photographs on the World Wide Web, so you can google images to find a photograph that is suitable for an image you want to represent in elearning. When you find a photograph on the Web, the odds are that you won’t have a copyright to use it in your elearning. But you can still use it in ID documentation because the documentation is not published. Just be sure to make a notation that you do not have permission to use the photo in the courseware and it is only meant to be similar to the image you want in the elearning. Then a photographer knows what to replicate or a developer knows what to find in an image that he or she can get permission to use.

There are also countless public domain photographs that can be used in elearning. There are numerous sources such as Creative Commons, government web sites, Wikipedia, and even some stock photo sites with photographs that you can publish free of charge. Just be sure to read the license for the photograph and make a notation in the ID documentation that tells the developer how the license requires the source of the photograph to be attributed (the caption under the image of the wireframe, above, is an example).

Many organizations contract their own photo sessions, not just for elearning projects but also for purposes such as marketing collateral and procedure documentation. The resulting photographs are the property of the organization, so they should be available for use in elearning developed by the organization. Hopefully, the organization archives the high-resolution photograph files somewhere in an asset library on their network so they can be accessed and easily searched by the instructional designer. In these cases, the instructional designer can identify the network path and file name of the photograph in the ID documentation but should also include a thumbnail of the image itself so people who review the documentation will know what it looks like.

These tools can be used to document ID in a number of ways. So the next time you start typing a wordy description of a visual elearning element into the ID documentation, stop and think of some other tool you can use that would be more effective and save you the effort of typing a thousand words.

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