I have been working with Visio for many years now for making mock-ups and wireframes, but a few weeks ago I bought Balsamiq Mockups. It’s a tool that lets you make simple mock-ups that look simple. Here's a quick review.

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.

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Balsamiq Mockups Screenshot
 

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.

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Balsamiq Mockups Menu
 

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 going 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.