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Balsamiq vs Pencil and Paper

This article is part of a series meant to help you choose the right wireframing solution for your needs.

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We Consider Pencil and Paper Our #1 Competitor

Since day one, Balsamiq was created to recreate the experience of sketching on a notebook or a whiteboard, but digitally.

We wanted to keep all the great aspects of sketching - its speed, its ability to get you in the flow, its low-fidelity qualities - but in a medium that made it easier to share, collaborate and iterate on designs.

That's been the whole premise of Balsamiq Wireframes, and more than a decade later, it hasn't changed.

A lot of tools have sprung up in the meantime, but they focus more on prototyping. Our laser focus on competing with paper has kept us insulated from much competition from other digital apps.

Pencil and paper are essentially free... so why should anyone use Wireframes instead?

After talking to thousands of you, we think we know the answer.

In fact, there are two answers, depending on whether you're a professional UX designer, or not.

Why Do UX Designers Use Balsamiq Together With Pencil and Paper?

If you draw UIs for a living, pencil and paper on a Moleskine notebook are hard to beat. We totally get it. Get out of the house, away from an Internet connection, and simply CREATE. Working with our hands feels amazing and does wonder to our brains. So by all means, continue using your sketchbook as much as you like.

What we see a lot of our UX designer customers do is to use Balsamiq as a second step, after the notebook. Once they get home, they fire up Wireframes and translate their rough sketches into a low-fidelity wireframe, to share and iterate on.

Balsamiq is the most focused, fastest way to do so. We intentionally left out features that let you tweak details, there will be time for that later.

Balsamiq even has features that make it feel very close to working on a notebook: try holding down the R key and dragging to draw a box, or T for a block of text, or Y for a title, or I for an image.

With snapping built-in, this is faster than paper, even for the roughest sketches.


We also have a "play background music" option to help you get in the flow. Try them out!

Why Do Non-Designers Use Balsamiq Instead of Pencil and Paper?

Balsamiq's sweet spot is really with founders, product managers, developers, consultants...people who are not professional designers but have an idea to develop and share.

After talking to many of you, we've learned that you prefer going straight into Balsamiq Wireframes instead of sketching first, for these reasons:

  • Assembling is much easier than drawing! - just drag and drop, move and resize. It will look "just right", no drawing skills required.
  • we give you a list of pre-made UI controls to choose from - if a control is in our UI Library, you can be confident that a programmer will be able to turn it into reality.

  • we avoid the "blank page" issue - a blank piece of paper is intimidating, where to begin! In Balsamiq you can quickly start with a browser, mobile phone or dialog control, and continue assembling your UI from there. You can even start from one of the many templates we give you on WireframesToGo.

  • it's MUCH faster! - watch the video below. Making something bigger, or duplicating a screen to use as a starting point of another are SO much faster.
  • the end result is understandable! No more chicken scratches even you can't understand!
  • collaboration is immediate! No more taking a photo of your work, emailing it to yourself, uploading it to the spec...just send people a link to your work for review, iteration and commenting. Easy.

Seeing is Believing

To illustrate these differences - and to satisfy our own curiosity - we ran a little experiment. We picked two screens from a popular app, and decided to recreate them, both in Balsamiq and using pencil and paper.

We filmed the whole thing, and created a side-by-side video of it. It's still a work in progress, but we'd like to show it to you, our inner circle, to get your thoughts on it before it goes live on our site.

Here it is! Note that both sides are shown at real-life speed! Neither side has been artificially sped up or slowed down in editing.

A couple of things to notice. Balsamiq is truly FAST: you can wireframe 2 screens in less than 4 minutes.

Balsamiq is indeed faster than paper, even in a simple 2-screen test like this one. Imagine if you had 10 or 100 variations to design!

On top of that, the quality of the output is MUCH higher with can actually read the contents of the labels, and buttons don't stick out of their frame! (smile)

Pretty fun video, huh? :)

A Few More Testimonials

Here are some other people who use Balsamiq together with, or instead of, pencil and paper:

We hope this article helps you make an informed choice.

Want to give Balsamiq Wireframes a try? Start here!

Happy wireframing!