Jon Matthews on Using Wireframes to Clarify Your Ideas
Our latest Champion, Jon Matthews, recently tweeted about how well Balsamiq works for drawing decision trees, like the one below. He has used it for a long time to help him design his products as well. He told me, "Mockups is just one of those tools I go to again and again. It's amply paid for itself when I've done actual mockups, stuff like [using it for decision trees] is all a bonus."
He continued, "I really like the look of how they came out, and it was much easier to use for this stuff than the other software I've got that could do something similar. Snap to grid that actually works is not to be underestimated :)"
A decision tree on how to fix broken links
His most recent use of Balsamiq for UI design was for CloudTrawl, where ease of use was targeted as a key differentiator. Rather than using it as a tool for communicating his ideas to others, he relied on it primarily to help him clarify his own ideas and get right to the good ones when it was time to start coding.
Q&A with Jon Matthews
Who are you and what do you do?
I'm Jon Matthews, I run Deep Cognition Ltd, a one person software company specializing in tools for web developers. Our mission statement is "Saving the web, one site at a time" which pretty much covers it. We do website monitoring and checking tools.
Our first product is DeepTrawl, a desktop app which checks sites for common errors like broken links, spelling mistakes, invalid html & css plus a lot more. We've recently added a unique new on site SEO feature, which modestly, I think is awesome. 🙂
We also have a premium website monitoring service called CloudTrawl. This monitors uptime, sends alerts for downtime and schedules checks for broken links & images.
What trends do you see in your role or industry?
There's a big trend towards SaaS. I don't make a generalised value judgement on this. The split should ideally be "horses for courses." I see a lot of businesses making the mistake of trying to make a pay monthly cloud service out of something which a user does irregularly. To me this makes no sense. On the other hand when something is used regularly, and especially when it's used from a lot of different machines, SaaS through the browsers is a natural fit & those who do it well deserve the (sometimes large) rewards they get. I can't live without DropBox now, I never begrudge those guys their monthly payment.
A lot has been made recently about the commoditization of software, i.e. app stores pushing down prices and encouraging the lowest common denominator. While that does seem to be having an effect in consumer software, it's less worrying in B2B where I think people tend to think more in terms of ROI.
What sets you apart from other people/companies that do what you do?
As a very small company, service and support are something that's much easier to do really well. With a larger company it's unlikely one of the developers of the software will spend hours trying to work through a difficult problem with an individual customer. This is something that not only can small developers do, but they should have it as a top priority. Everyone benefits.
Technically, I've always tried to move the products less towards being single purpose and more towards being as broad as possible within the remit of the company. In the case of DeepTrawl, there are a hundred link checkers out there, but none that do the range of other stuff it does. Sometimes our customers don't know they need the other stuff until they see it working. So my attitude is: come to us for the link checking, buy from us because of the other stuff it does.
What's challenging about your job and how do you deal with it?
Probably the sheer amount of hats I have to wear. It's very easy to get dragged off into writing code where things are safe and predictable when in reality I should be concentrating on marketing. I also find it hard to do anything else when I know a tricky support question is hanging over my head. Every now and again something comes up that means I'm distracted thinking about an issue when I should be paying attention to my wife / family / friends. Luckily my wife is very understanding 🙂
What other tools do you use for your job?
For code I love Eclipse and the EJ Technologies tools (Install4J / JProfiler). Actually JProfiler is awesome. In the early days (between DeepTrawl v1 and v2) it allowed me to speed up some operations literally by hundreds of times.
I'm also using Google Drive more and more. Everything else goes into DropBox, which is indispensable but Drive allows me to do some things much more easily. For simple word processing and spreadsheets, Drive is now my go-to-tool.
What do you like most about what you do?
Freedom to do things properly without office politics. The business is also still at a stage when each sale or signup that comes in makes me smile. There's no better feeling than seeing someone liked my stuff enough to click the buy button.
Why do you use Balsamiq Mockups?
I used to struggle a lot with writing code for screens, then never being able to make them function like they did in my head. Essentially this was because what was in my head just wasn't practical & thought through correctly. I don't know how common this is with Balsamiq's customers, but I never have a need to share my designs with others, they simply help me to clarify my own thoughts and stop me writing code that needs to be thrown away later.
It's also becoming my favourite tool for general diagramming. For example, in this article I used Mockups for creating things like node arc diagrams and a decision tree. There's two reasons I chose Mockups for these tasks:
- It's a well implemented drawing tool. There's nothing more frustrating than snap to grid that doesn't work quite right, which I see in so many tools.
- I love the look of the output, the hand drawn style says to the reader that they're looking at something conceptual, kind of like a chalkboard at school.
Can you tell me about a specific project where Balsamiq Mockups was especially useful?
Yes. CloudTrawl came out a year ago so that design process is still pretty fresh. It helped a lot there. I took a look around our competition and found their usability really sucked, it just didn't make any sense. I usually push hard on usability but here it was an easy win.
I already had Mockups from an earlier project and it helped map out pretty much every inch of the webapp. It saved me an unquantifiable amount of time in implementation. So frequently in the past I used to end up ripping up screens I'd implemented in code because in real life they didn't and couldn't work as I'd imagined. Now I have Mockups that no longer happens. It's a fantastic time / frustration saver.
I still have a folder full of mockups from that time and when I look at them now the actual screens are functionally identical to what's in the mockup. Even the layouts are almost entirely the same. For me this is the power of the tool. It pushes design iteration from the code (which is a slow place to iterate & therefore expensive) to mockups (which is a very fast place to iterate).
Thank you, Jon, for sharing your story and thoughts. You are a Champion!
Do you have a story to share about the awesome things you do with Balsamiq? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your stories or blog posts!