Balsamiq mockups review

I have been working with Visio for many years now for making mockups and wireframes, but a few weeks ago I bought Balsamiq mockups. It’s a tool that lets you make simple mockups that look simple. I am in the very early stages of a large project and I like the fact that I can easily make something that looks unfinished enough to be discussed as a possibility, not as a finished product (which happens often with more polished wireframes). I was making actual sketches on paper and scanning them before, but they are often hard to read and understand – doing it in Balsamiq is faster.

image

My conclusion: Balsamiq mockups is fun to use and makes the team focus on what matters by being sketchy, but it needs to evolve just a little more.

Features.

Balsamiq lets you drag & drop lots of UI elements on a page, and combine them into mockups. So far so good. You can save as PNG and paste that into Powerpoint for presentations.

Grouping. You can group elements together, and then move them as 1 element. This works as expected.

Backwards/Forwards. You can move elements to the back or front, this works as expected.

Text. You can type in text, for which you have to doubleclick the element. I would prefer to just be able to select an element and start typing, but that’s a minor problem.

Locking. You can lock elements in place, this works fine. However, you can not unlock 1 element (if you want to make a little change to it), there’s only an option to Unlock all (see screenshot below). That’s a little annoying, if I want to make a change to something that’s locked, I have to unlock all and the relock everything again.

image

No multiple screens.

One drawback: each screen in Balsamiq is 1 file. So no multiple screens per file. That makes it much harder to keep a project with many screens organized, or to share it. I had about 20 screens in this document and things were already become a little messy. It’s doable, but not great. The tool can have many screens open at once (switch with tabs at the bottom), so it’s workable, but not perfect. My projects usually have between 20 and 100 screens, so let me manage that.

No backgrounds.

Perhaps related to the fact that there are no multiple screens, there are no backgrounds. This is a big problem for me: reusable backgrounds (containing the basic website elements) are a HUGE efficiency win for me in Visio: if I want to change the logo, I just change it once in the background.

No concept of Masters.

Also related to not having multiple screens, there are no masters. To be honest, Visio doesn’t have a decent concept of masters either, but Axure has, and it rocks. Masters are complex (grouped) elements that you reuse on many pages. If you make a change to the master, the element is changed on all pages. For large projects and for efficiency, you really need this. For example, a master can be a search box with a submit button and some text. Change the text in one place and it’s adjusted everywhere this master is used.

No easy creation of new UI elements.

If you want to create a UI item in Visio, you just use the drawing tools and make it, then group it and save it as a new element, done. The only way to create a new element in Balsamiq is to import it as a picture (I had to check the manuals). I made a few sketches on paper of some elements, scanned them, then imported them, but they didn’t look good and it was too much work.

Conclusion.

For the first weeks of the project, Balsamiq was great. It kept people focused on the fact that these are still just sketches, and was fairly easy to use. For the rest of the project, I’m gonna switch to Axure though, which has the necessary features to efficiently manage dozens or hundreds of wireframe pages.

On the positive side, Balsamiq is working on a browser based version with collaboration and commenting, which will totally make it rock for quickly iterating through different designs. Add some power features like multiple pages, backgrounds and masters (you could even leave out backgrounds if you have masters), and you’re done! And even for these few weeks, it was worth the money.

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12 thoughts on “Balsamiq mockups review

  1. Hi Peter, thanks for the great review, feedback from IA professionals like yourself is hugely useful to me (and ultimately to all of Mockups users).

    A few points:
    – you don’t have to double-click to edit, you can hit “ENTER” or F2 as well (faster)
    – unlocking a single element is done by right-clicking over it and choosing “unlock” from the little context menu
    – projects with multiple mockups: I’m working on it, I think you’ll like it
    – to reuse a background, I would suggest using the image import feature, as shown in this video: http://www.balsamiq.com/products/mockups/help#templates
    – same for masters
    – no drawing tools / authoring of new elements: I’ll work on it. The trick is to make it easy to use for everyone
    – I agree that Mockup’s sweet spot is at the beginning of a project, that’s what it was designed for. I have heard great things about Axure and know a lot of people who start in Mockups and move to Axure for the next steps in the process. Mockups is so cheap… :)
    – The online version is coming along really nicely, consider yourself invited to the private beta! :)

  2. Thanks for the post. I’ve been interested in Balsamiq since first hearing about it, but the same obstacles you identify (not having a background / master screen concept, no multi-page documents, etc.) are deal-breakers for me. I am a pretty big OmniGraffle fan and with the correct set of stencils (which already exist and can be had for $10) it can do all the things you like about Balsamiq without the limitations you describe. I even think the OG implementation of shared layers (among various canvases / pages) is superior to the Visio use of nested backgrounds in some ways.

    …of course you would need to use a Mac (but that’s a plus for me.)

  3. Thanks Peldi, for the tips!

    Your solution for the masters doesn’t work for me though, the point is that I can make global changes. Same comment for backgrounds :)

  4. I’m wondering the benefits of the sketch look. I get that it comes from the Bill Buxton philosophy, but how does a digital approach work? There’s still a refined look I would think. Have you been presenting to clients? Team members?

    Thanks,
    CP

  5. I’ve not used Balsamiq in anger, but I have misgivings about it because I think it might encourage you not to think about the broader interaction design (why use anything else when you have a nice-looking drop-down menu control just begging to be used?) Secondly, it seems self-contradictory to me: yes, it’s got a “rough” look so that people are encouraged to discuss concepts, but on the other hand, it’s clearly trying to be quite hi-fidelity as well (you used a drop-down menu, so you mean a drop-down menu, right?). Perhaps these misgivings are two sides of the same coin. Personally I use real paper and pencils when I want o present sketches as sketches, and then I use Axure when I want to present interaction designs as such. Balsamiq seems to occupy a mid-point there that’s just not sitting right with me.

  6. try iplotz.com, with masters, projects with multiple pages. The app either works online with collaborative editing and navigation, or offline using the desktop version

  7. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the review!

    When it came to re-drawing work in Axure after using Balsamiq, was the re-work worth it? I can imagine it being a lot of work, or it could go very quickly once the ideas are agreed upon.

  8. I’ve used Mockups for several months now, and like it very much. It makes me more productive, and I can build mockups for a project in a fraction of the time now, and do not need to rely on any assistance from a developer. I like the comic font, as it is useful when interacting with users. I like the linking, and will try to create a master as outlined in the video (haven’t done that yet). I think that if there were an easier way to create a master without the import/export chore, it would have most of what I need. I have demo’d Axure and iPlotz also. They are good products. Where Balsamic excels is in its usability. Please keep it simple to use in future releases !!! The other products behave more like development tools sometimes, in my opinion. I am a systems analyst and have no desire to use a developer’s workbench. Thanks for a product that is truly intended for an analyst.

  9. I too have used it for a number of months and I think the sketchy style is what makes it so good. When putting together a project spec I can slip in quick designs that illustrate a point, rather than detailed images which tend to be interpreted as the finished article. I wouldn’t use it in place of proper wireframe software, but it does a job for me.

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