Balsamiq Mockups: A Review

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I had been looking for a reason to install Adobe AIR since it was launched last year. Unfortunately I’ve never found an AIR application that I really needed. That’s not to say there aren’t good ones out there, its just I never found one that I really had to have (and don’t get me wrong, I think AIR is a good technology). This has now changed…let me explain.

A short while ago I was checking my GMail account and noticed an ad at the top talking about Balsamiq Mockups. I was intrigued so I clicked the link. I was presented with a clean, 37 Signals-like website with a lot of information and more important (at least to me) lots of screenshots and screencasts. I spent quite a bit of time on the website and quickly located the “Try it now” link.

Right off the bat I liked the interface. It was simple, easy to navigate, and responded very well (who says Flash RIAs are slow and painful to use?). Tooltips quickly guided me on how to interact with the sample mockup. I messed around with the online demo a while and was impressed with the large number of controls out of the box (75 currently). There is a thriving community of users that are contributing to even more controls, the Facebook one in particular caught my eye right off the bat and quickly registered in my mind how flexible this tool really is.

There are several incarnations of the Balsamiq Mockups tool but I’m going to talk about the Desktop version (which by the way as I mentioned above is built in Adobe AIR so it runs just fine on Windows, OS X, and Linux). The website mentions that most people like to use pen and paper to do their mockups since its quick and easy. I’d agree with that assumption. My preferred method is borrowing some of my child’s doodle paper with a sharpie. Reading further on their website they write “Balsamiq Mockups has an elegant, minimalist, easy-to-learn interface which doesn’t get in your way”. Now, I’ve heard this before. I’ve learned not to trust companies when they say something is easy to learn because typically its not – at least not in the world of software development. However, after messing with the demo I was going to give them the benefit of the doubt but I was still determined to put this tool to the test.

Balsamiq Mockups interface video

One thing that impressed me about this tool is that I can mockup Websites, RIAs (Rich Internet Applications, ie: Flash, Flex, Silverlight, etc.), thick clients, iPhone apps, etc. Its not just limited to one particular area of software development. Since I have an iPhone I felt the first thing I wanted to do was to mockup an iPhone application. You can choose the orientation of the iPhone and add in whatever you need to get the screen how your app would display it. Within several minutes I was able to craft together a nice data entry application mock up. I saved the mock up and was happy to see the resulting file was a human readable XML file (I’ve seen far too many XML files that are not human readable lately).

iPhone Mock Up
(Note: This image is from the Balsamiq Mockups website)

As I mocked up several other RIA applications I was very impressed at how responsive Balsamiq Mockups was – and this is really the first product that doesn’t have any sort of learning curve. I’ve seen that some people have complained on the default font but keep in mind you can use system fonts as well if you wish. I liked the default font myself so it was a non-issue to me.

Bownce
(Note: This image is from the Balsamiq Mockups website)

BMeeting
(Note: This image is from the Balsamiq Mockups website)

The great thing about Balsamiq Mockups is it never got in my way, there are plenty of keyboard shortcuts and clicks and double clicks make mocking up screens quick and painless. The property inspector is a real work of genius. It’s there when you need it and gets lost when you don’t. I loved how it worked, minimal, but powerful.

Property Inspector
(Note: This image is from the Balsamiq Mockups website)

There are plenty of icons that ship with Balsamiq Mockups as well…

Icon Library
(Note: This image is from the Balsamiq Mockups website)

Icon Search
(Note: This image is from the Balsamiq Mockups website)

Now, I had my concerns of Balsamiq Mockups (desktop version) being an Adobe AIR application. Those concerns quickly flushed away. AIR is definitely the right choice for the desktop version. The installation on my laptop was quick, painless and worked like a charm. I was up and running in minutes. Its applications like this that renew my faith in the fact great RIAs can be built with Flex/Flash.

I haven’t used too many products that didn’t have some sort of problem or some kind of usability concern of some sort. Balsamiq Mockups is honestly the first product I’ve used that didn’t have any issues nor could I find anything that “annoyed me”. Tools like this are very rare today, you can feel the craftsmanship that went into this product, the attention to detail. Its refreshing to say the least. I’ve been developing software for more than 11+ years professionally and Balsamiq Mockups clearly stands out from the crowd as an application where there is some real pride in it from the developers/designers. The company is only a handful of people and I take a certain amount of comfort in that. The fact is most small companies treat their customers better and get to actually know their customers rather than regard them as some number in a database.

Also, if you have a desktop and a laptop like I do, then you can run Balsamiq Mockups on both machines since their license allows this. This is a very nice feature for customers and very handy. The help for the product is actually helpful which is extremely rare nowadays for almost any sort of software. The fact the tool is so easy to use and learn chances are you won’t need the help much, but if you do it’s there as well as an active forum and other support options.

As you look over the screen shots some developers are maybe taken back by the “crudeness” of the widgets and interfaces. Keep in mind though this is the intent of this tool. Personally I don’t want the Krustomer to have polished fancy screens, I want simple mock ups that are non-functional and don’t raise false hopes. I want something that doesn’t dwell on the pretty (that comes later) but “do you like the button here? Do you like where we put the company icon? Etc.”.

So in the end the question is would I continue to use this tool? Will I avoid my son’s art paper and my beloved sharpie? The answer now is clearly “yes”. I have to admit after using Balsamiq Mockups I am very excited to know what kind of application they might cook up in the future.

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2 Responses to Balsamiq Mockups: A Review

  1. Michal says:

    I’m not a big fan of balsamiq – the sketchy feeling just doesn’t feel professional. I know the idea behind it but just don’t like this style
    I pesonaly use http://justproto.com
    It works online and it’s simple and fast and looks very clean.

  2. Efraim says:

    I love Balsamiq mockups! Use it almost weekly!
    However, software UI tools don’t seem to solve the ‘first ideas’ or ‘napkin drawings’. For some reason, I can’t bring in software until the idea is a little more clear, since all UI software (incl. Balsamiq) only allow pre-set controls.

    To solve the early stages, I use:
    http://www.MockupMagnets.com
    Very fun magnetic UI widgets for prototyping on a whiteboard. You should try them!

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