Monday, 27 July 2009

Balsamiq trial experience

Taking a break from coding Android sandbox experiments, this afternoon I tried out the UI prototyping tool Balsamiq to develop some initial ideas for the CloudBank client user interface. Usually I use pen and paper for this kind of task: low-tech tools that are difficult to beat in terms of flexibility and speed. If only there was copy/paste and undo/redo in the analog world...

Balsamiq runs online in a browser window or on the desktop, with free trials for both versions. I tried the online version, which is fully functional but displays a nag screen every few minutes. (Just hit dismiss to continue).

Having watched their video tutorial, I knew roughly how the software works and had no problems finding my way around. This is a very focussed UI design tool. No feature creep. It's amazing how quick you get acceptable results, I put together three mobile screens for CloudBank in less than two hours. This includes time to experiment, annotate and export the screens.

The trial version allows you to export and import designs. Export either as XML to the clipboard, or as a PNG image to download, import as XML. One thing to keep in mind is that imports are cumulative, i.e. to restore a previously saved design it is advisable to clear the current mockup before import.

Some difficulties I had:
  • Could not change the background color of controls or the provided iPhone screen
  • Could not create a simple multi-line button. There is a multi-line button provided, but that is pre-configured with fixed fonts for the first (large) and second line (small).
  • In some cases I found the grid-based positioning of controls too coarse; an option to turn it off would be useful.
  • Cannot import custom graphics. I know this is difficult to implement for web-based tools as they have no direct access to the client computer's hard disk, however, unfortunately the desktop version has the same limitation.
Despite some problems I think this is a wonderful tool for UI prototyping: focused, very speedy, and with a useful arsenal of controls and icons. While in my experience pen and paper are still quicker when sketching initial designs, Balsamiq definitely is a strong competitor. And in addition to speedy sketching, it supports copy/paste, undo/redo and sharing of designs! Definitely worth a try.


  1. Some very interesting comments on Balsamiq, plus a wider debate on quick and dirty protoyping, over on Andy Budd's blog -

  2. 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:
    Very fun magnetic UI widgets for prototyping on a whiteboard. You should try them!

  3. You should go to the Balsamiq Get Satisfaction page. I'm sure Peldi would respond to your comments, which are pertinent.

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