My love/hate relationship with Balsamiq


#1

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot I really like about Balsamiq, and I want to embrace the app, really I do.

But I do a UI job about every six months and the story always goes the same way. Every single time:

I start out using Balsamiq because it is the best thing around for bashing out your ideas quickly. Things start our well, but then it happens, all the really annoying things about Balsamiq’s interface start pecking away at me. The more I use it, the more Balsamiq’s interface makes me want to scratch my eyes out. Eventually after a week or so I get so frustrated, I can’t stand using Balsamiq anymore and I go away and rebuild the entire project in something else.

The really frustrating thing is the problems are so easy to fix but no one at Balsamiq seems to notice or care.

Balsamiq seems to be an app that is very friendly to people who’s workflows are centred around keyboard shortcuts. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Lots of people work like that, go with whatever works for you.

But not everyone is so keyboard shortcut centric. I’m predominantly a mouser, and the lack of attention to detail to this side of the interface dives me bonkers.
Go into Balsamiq, right click on a bit of text. See the menu that comes up. It’s a mess.

All the menu items and the keyboard shortcuts are just dumped on top of each other. All left justified, all the same colour, and all these brackets around the keyboard shortcuts unnecessary clogging up things further. It makes it so hard to find what you are looking for.

Don’t believe me? Go into chrome, right click on an empty bit of a page. See how a really usable menu is laid out. Menu items on one side. Shortcuts on the other. Shortcuts greyed out to so they don’t get in the way. No brackets. The plugin items even have icons to further distinguish them. The Balsamiq looks like visual pollution in comparison.

Go to chrome://settings/ click on the hamburger menu, then click on the advanced dropdown. Even though they are all monochrome, see how the icons are distinctive from each other. Some are kinda round, some kinda square, some filled in and dark, some just outlines. See how the spacing between them gives them a chance to breathe?

Now look at the icons in the top middle of Balsamiq. All squished together, all pretty much filled in squares. Every time I feel like I have to look hard to figure out which is which.

In pretty much every other app when you hover your mouse over a button it is highlighted. Not in Balsamiq, no visual clue for you!

The display controls for the navigator -not- being in the navigator, it does my head in. I know the visibility of the different panels makes it difficult, but other applications solve these problems.

The usability of the icons on the top left is just so poor. Three slightly different square boxes the same size, shoved up against each other in a row. Jakob Nielsen would be tearing what’s left of his hair out. The square box on the left is an inverted plus sign, it is right next to the only non-box icon, it’s a normal plus sign. How is a new user supposed to derive any meaningful information from those at a glance?

Believe me I’m trying to be constructive, this is in no way a vitriolic rant. But at the same time these issues frustrate me enormously.

I’m sure there will be responses from people saying its fine for them. Plenty of people may be used to the way the app looks and behaves. And like I say, it’s great that it works for you.

But what I’m talking about here is not some crazy outlying theory, a bunch of this stuff is usability 101.


#2

I really appreciate this, @James. I hesitate to address these concerns directly because I’m not a designer, and I don’t want to pretend I know what best practices are. I worked as a support guy for a web designer before starting at Balsamiq and, from that perspective, I can say that the UI made sense to me - but that doesn’t mean it’s right.

If you have the time, and are familiar with Slack, I’d love to have you join our next-generation web-app beta. I think you will find some of the same problems, but I think you will find that it feels better to use.

If that’s something you’d like to give a spin send us an email and we will get you invited.

Thanks again for taking the time to post this, James. It’s hard to hear when folks are having trouble with our app’s usability, but it gives us things to think about - and that helps us make the app better!