I’ve written quite a few functional designs over the years and I’ve found that for users needing to validate it having visuals is key. In most cases prospective users don’t understand what they really get until they see screens. On the opposite side of the spectrum telling developers what to do also is much easier with a screen, especially when you are debating what would be the best and most efficient (coding wise) way to give a user certain functionality. In these situations just getting a piece of paper and draw is the best you can do. The last few years I’ve done this on and off on my tablet. I can sketch on it, but the results are often so poor to see (and read!), that I can’t possible put it in a functional design. This is where a good mockup tool comes in.
A good mockup tool should make you feel like you are drawing, but provide you with predefined controls to make your job fast and easy. Recently I came across Balsamiq Mockups, which is simply jaw dropping. Let’s start with the result, which looks pretty much like a hand drawn thing. At first glance that may not seem like a big deal, but it is. It states clearly “This is a mockup, the actual thing may look different“. If you give a user something that looks like a screenshot, that is what to expect to get. With this they know it will look differently when it is done, and this also makes it much easier to debate your choices and come up with better ideas (to quote David Platt, “Thy User Is Not You”, so they will come up with stuff you didn’t even dream about).
Ok, so the result is great, what about getting there? Well, that’s a piece of cake, really. Balsamiq is as intuitive a tool as I’ve seen and I was able to create a pretty complex screen in about 10 minutes. There’s a bunch of commonly used controls (and some less common), and you can easily find what you need. Also, you can download tons of additional controls from http://mockupstogo.net. Placing, moving, resizing etc. is all very easy because of the snapping support. Want to see for yourself? Look here.
The last things that I find refreshing is the licensing model and fee. It only costs $79 for a single license, and that comes with updates forever (and they update frequently, so they say). Because the tool is already so good, this means you can use it for years, without having to worry about support or having to get a new version.
This is just a great tool. I am sure I will be using it often.