Balsamiq may or may not be the tool you expect it to be. Perhaps someone told you that you should use it but you don't really know why. Or maybe you already have a tool that you're familiar with but want something that does more (or less!). This article describes what Balsamiq is, and isn't, and how it compares to other UX tools.
Note: You should also refer to this article that answers some more general questions about our tool, its capabilities, and our business: How to choose a wireframing / prototyping tool. Is Balsamiq the right tool for me?.
Balsamiq is, generally-speaking, a User Interface Design tool.
More specifically, Balsamiq is a low-fidelity wireframing tool that can be used to quickly create an informal visual representation of any kind of software interface (desktop, web, mobile, etc.). It is used by people in a wide range of roles in the software industry, such as Product Managers, Designers, Developers, and Entrepreneurs.
Here is an example of a "wireframe" created in Balsamiq, shown in two different "skins" (more examples here).
It is optimized for communicating design concepts and generating ideas in the early stages of the software process. It intentionally has "just enough" prototyping capabilities, but not more.
General categories of user interface design tools are listed below, including specific products highlighted in each category. We don't have every tool listed here, and don't know all of their features, but here's some of what we do know. For more in-depth comparisons, see the links at the end of this article.
Tools like Visio and OmniGraffle can be used for a broad range of diagramming tasks, including creating wireframes (especially using UI stencil kits). You can also design floor plans, create process and flow charts, and many other kinds of diagrams with them. Powerpoint and Keynote are obviously designed for creating slides for presentations, but can be turned into UI design tools by leveraging their built-in drawing tools.
Balsamiq is similar to these tools in that it has pre-built shapes that you can drag and drop onto a canvas and doesn't take much time to learn, although Balsamiq only contains shapes and controls for user interfaces. This makes it much easier to use for UI design. We find that many non-"designer-types" (e.g., people on the business or marketing side of the aisle) often start with generic diagramming tools because they already have them and then switch to Balsamiq when they start creating UI wireframes more regularly.
There are other wireframing tools with features that are similar to Balsamiq. Like Balsamiq, many of them have free trials, so feel free to try them out. Wireframing tools typically allow you to drag and drop user interface components on to a canvas to create a rough sketch of your software or website idea. They are meant to be quick and easy for anyone to use regardless of their background.
If you are trying to decide between wireframing tools we have a list of questions to ask to guide you in the process. See our guide on how to choose a wireframing tool.
High-fidelity graphics tools like Photoshop and Sketch can be used for a wide range of graphics tasks, including photo manipulation, graphic and logo design, and high-fidelity (i.e., "pixel perfect") screen mockups. For user interface design tasks, images created using these tools are frequently used in the final product. Using these tools, you can fine-tune things like fonts, shadows, borders, and colors.
The trade-off is that they take more time to learn and master, can be expensive, and put the focus more on the appearance than the experience. And because there is often only one person on each project that knows the tool, the process can slow down when changes need to be made.
There is another category of tools that is focused more on showing designs and getting feedback on them than creating them. A popular tool in this category is InVision, which allows you to upload wireframes or mockups created with another tool (as image files) and add "hot spots" for connecting them together. These tools are useful if you already have screen mockups and you are interested in showing them to clients or testing them with customers.
Balsamiq can be used for testing and presenting your work, but the idea behind it is not to look or behave like a final product. It is intended to show work in progress, concepts, or early-stage wireframes.
Many designers start with Balsamiq and then move to a different tool once the final design has been agreed upon. Viewing and testing tools in particular benefit from being used in combination with Balsamiq because they often don't have the capability to create UI designs.
Prototyping tools are optimized for creating realistic interface designs and interactions, often for usability testing and/or client presentations. They can be used to create a prototype that looks and feels like the real thing, even though it may not be fully functional or use any code that will eventually be used to create it.
The promise of these tools is that they are faster than writing real code, yet can provide an immersive, realistic experience that gives the user or client a feel for the final product that will be built.
Compared to Balsamiq, these tools are generally more expensive and have a steeper learning curve. Fully-featured prototyping tools allow for more kinds of interactions, such as hover states, animations, and swipe behaviors, but these interactions take a lot of time to create and can require configuring complex logic. Additionally, prototypes are harder to iterate on. Creators can get "attached" to an initial design, reviewers often see them as "final," and making changes is labor-intensive.
Balsamiq intentionally has only limited prototyping capabilities, because we feel that focusing on interactivity and low-level details early on can be distracting (more about this here). Many UX Designers use prototyping tools because of their need to produce realistic-looking representations of the final product, although they often start with Balsamiq to flesh out their initial ideas and concepts.
Balsamiq generates static wireframes, not code, so the final user interface must be recreated in code. The danger of working only in code is that it can exclude stakeholders from participating fully in the design and creation process, because only code editors can make changes.
If you like to code in development environments ("IDE"s, such as IntelliJ or Eclipse), you might enjoy some of the new visual code editing tools like Framer. They allow you to hook up events and create more realistic interactions, often using native code.
The drawback is that, like web frameworks, they take more time, and therefore changes are more costly to make. If you think in code, you may not "need" Balsamiq, but many people find it useful to flesh out early ideas.