A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: Cool Tool for Screen Layout Mockups

For several years, I’ve been using Visio with custom templates designed to represent every possible web part in MOSS 2007.  I spent a lot of time maintaining them for my own use but I will share them with clients as part of a design engagement.  They work pretty well and are very comprehensive.  This week, I’ve been testing a really cool and fun tool that, while not specifically for SharePoint, creates a much more engaging result than Visio – Balsamiq Mockups.

build a wireframe design for a web site.  It only took me a few minutes to mock up a pretty reasonable approximation of a SharePoint page layout with no training or documentation – which means this product is really easy to use.  I was able to draw the design and print it out or save it as a .png file that I imported into a PowerPoint presentation.

Mockups is a UI prototyping tool for developers, designers and project managers.  It includes a series of user-friendly icons that you drag and drop on to a background page to

What I really like about this tool is that the output looks hand drawn (but by someone with very good artistic skills – i.e., not me).  This is actually a very important feature.  While the drawings clearly look professional, they don’t look done – which allows you to manage expectations of customers when you present a design – this is just the design, we’re not done yet!  Here are some examples of mockups that are provided on the Balsamiq web site.  My plan is to create a series of SharePoint “web parts” in Balsamiq so that I can choose the right design tool for each engagement.  In some cases, my precise Visio templates will be the right approach.  However, for others, I can clearly see some advantages to using Balsamiq over Visio, if only because the look and feel is so engaging.

The pricing plan makes this tool pretty much within anyone’s reach: it is $79 for a single end user license but there are volume discounts available.  Plus, if you are a charity, a blogger or journalist, willing to do a demo to a group of an audience of at least 15 people at a user group or conference, or a high school teacher, they will give you a copy for free.  (I plan to suggest this to my son’s web design teacher.  I think she’ll really like this and the deal for high school teachers is that they’ll give you a license for every kid in the class.)

Moreover, as small business owner myself, I am always drawn to small businesses, especially family-run companies.  This company is basically a two person organization – Giacomo “Peldi” Guilizzoni and his wife, Mariah Maclachlan.  You just have to love a company where the product is totally cool (not perfect, but so well done it’s scary) and the operation is all family.  Here’s what Peldi has to say about the company name on his web site: “Like a fine balsamic vinegar, my software adds flavor to something else (in my case Web Office apps), requires craftsmanship, and is made in Italy!”  You too can try Balsamiq Mockups for free, but I definitely recommend paying the $79 for the full license.  Any user-friendly tool that helps designers communicate more effectively with customers and sponsors is a winner for me and if $79 can make any developer look like an artist, it’s definitely a good buy!

P.S. If you want to try a free version of some Visio shapes for SharePoint similar to what I use, check out this collection on Ferry den Dopper’s blog

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