One day with Balsamiq Mockups: a review

We’ve just started a new Silverlight project and since our the UI guy is not on site with us, I ended up with the task of producing screen mockups. Some interest was expressed in using Balsamiq Mockups, and this seemed like a good time to really take it for a  test drive.

What does it do?

Balsamiq is a tool for quickly authoring mockups of applications and websites. My favorite tool for doing mockups is pencil and paper (turns out that it’s really, really good). However, we needed something that we could readily show during a review meeting and my sketches don’t photocopy well.

Nevertheless, I did my brainstorming on paper and I used it for my first round of reviews with the team. This left me with about a dozen pages storyboarding the core of our application.

After the first review, I began recreate it with Balsamiq.

In Balsamiq you start with a blank, gridded canvas and drag various UI elements from a library onto the canvas. It reminds me of Visio a bit, but without so much pain. All of the elements are styled to look like hand-drawn. This is important because it prevents anyone from assuming that the application is “done” when you’re just presenting mockups.making a web page with Balsamiq

The elements in Balsamiq are impressively intelligent. Most elements allow you to type in some content and they react intuitively to that content. I was amazed a couple of time at how smartly they responded. Balsamiq ships with about 75 elements in its library and there are more being posted all the time. You cannot really extend the library yourself however, though you can incorporate your own images.

Each mockup screen is a single file. They are XML so it’s source control friendly. If you are mocking up an entire application (like I was) you can link the files together. Many of the elements have a link property that you can point to any other Balsamiq files in the same directory. Once you’ve linked up some files, you can “run” your mockups in presentation mode. This allows you to navigate around the application and toggle annotations (like the sticky note in my screen shot). The presentation mode is really cool.

Should you buy it?

I think that mocking up the UI is a very useful exercise. It helps to expose the behavior of the application that you are going to build and surfaces many insights into what it really needs to do. I still prefer to use paper and pencil for the initial pass. However, I found that following this up with Balsamiq forced me to think through the entire flow of my appplication. My paper storyboards had holes in them that I did not realize until I attempted to express them in Balsamiq.

The reviewers were really excited to see the Balsamiq mockups and being able to walk them through the application was a definite plus for them. The tool is easy to use. I would say that any designer developer doing UI work should be using a tool like Balsamiq.

What it offers for $79 is really hard to beat. Admittedly, I don’t know what other tools are out there and how they compare. By itself, I think it definitely worth it for anyone doing UI work.

Of course, there is SketchFlow. It is coming. I think that SketchFlow looks very promising, especially for us XAML guys, but it’s not available yet. I’ll let you know what I think about the overlap once I get a change to actually use SketchFlow.

Little Things

I had a couple of annoyances that are worth pointing out.

First, you cannot create reusable components. For example, I had certain elements of the application that appeared in several places. I had to clone these elements, but when I needed to change them, I had to make the change in each element. (Another reason to start with pencil).

I think that it would also be nice if there was a “back button” in presentation mode. Within my mockup I had a few screens that you could get too in multiple ways, however I did not have an easy way of returning the the previous screen.

I also get the impression that the community around Balsamiq likes to poke fun at us PC guys. I smile politely.

Finally, Balsamiq likes to keep all of the linked files open. You’ll notice an excessive number of tabs on the bottom of the screen shot. Those are all the screens within the application I was mocking. It became a little difficult to find that right one.

On the whole, Balsamiq is a smart application and I expect to see great things as it matures. Many of its features are intuitive and “just work”, and that’s how I like my software to roll.


Posted 06-19-2009 12:03 AM by Christopher Bennage
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