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Mock it Real Good

A few weeks ago I came across a blog post mentioning Balsamiq Mockups, an application to put together screen sketches, and as always my first thought was: “Do I really need a toy like that?” Now, several sketches and one presentation later, the answer is more “oh, yes” than I anticipated at first.

Paper and Pencil

Like many, I have outlined screens with some paper and a pencil until now. And I won’t mothball that pencil quite yet because it still has one huge advantage: It works in my favorite environment: on the beach. However, things tend to get messy as sketches become more numerous, complex and mature.

Therefore after the initial brainstorming, it’s a good idea to fire up an editor of sorts and morph the sketches into a state worthy of presentation. This is where Balsamiq Mockups comes into play.

It’s a graphics editor specially designed for screen sketches and comes with a set of UI elements which represent most of what you will need for an average (web) application. Additional UI elements can be downloaded and future versions might bring a larger UI library to start with. Once placed these UI elements can be tweaked, however, the variations are limited to what makes sense for that specific element. This streamlines the number of menus and buttons compared to more generic tools such as OmniGraffle or Adobe Illustrator and thus speeds up the sketching a big deal.

No False Hopes

Mock UI elements are not perfectly styled and don’t carry the look of any specific environment but resemble more what the good old pencil would have produced. This intentional lack of perfection makes it utterly useless to be pedantic and the resulting sketches don’t pretend to be anywhere close to a final product yet.

The impact of this last sentence only becomes clear once you present the sketches to non-techies such as that notorious guy from marketing or a potential user like I did a few days ago: You run next to zero risk of raising false hopes such as “wow, look at that beautiful screen, these guys are almost done with my app”. And at the same time you make it crystal clear that the sketches are just that – and most likely will see adjustments during implementation.

Need Some AIR

Only downside so far: Balsamiq Mockups runs on AIR which means you have to install Adobe stuff on your computer. This may hurt, after all, it felt so good when my Mac became an Adobe free zone many years ago. (Not entirely true after Adobe acquired Macromedia, but that’s another story.) However, after using the online trial for a while, the fun working with it outweighed my adobephobia. And AIR runs stable and does a pretty good job mimicking a native Mac OS X application.

The best way to testdrive Balsamiq Mockups is the free online version which also comes in handy if you want to send screen outlines to someone who doesn’t own the software and still would like to fiddle about your sketches. The downloadable AIR application runs on all major platforms.

(Sven Schwyn)

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