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I'm very excited to highlight one of our original Champions, Michael Bourque. Michael began contributing to our community forums in August 2008, just two months after Balsamiq Mockups was introduced. In addition to answering community questions, he has suggested many of our most popular feature ideas (a few examples: line breaks, Symbols, Mockups To Go, re-ordering tabs, and exporting all Mockups to PNG). He has become known in our forums for freely giving out his ideas and actively participating in feature discussions, traits I learned were common across many of his projects.
I interviewed him recently and we talked about how he became a fan of Mockups, how he uses it in his work, and his latest project, The Reverse Startup.
Michael's story actually starts before Mockups existed. He was working on a large project that few people outside his team understood or supported, but that he knew had great potential. In a last-ditch attempt to save the project from being cut, his team created a PowerPoint slide deck showing images of each screen and walked viewers through the process of using it, describing the problem it was solving along the way. This combination of screen mockups and story telling was a huge success and not only saved the project, but promoted it to one of the most important projects in the company. According to Michael, "it changed everything...everyone was onboard."
When he came across Balsamiq Mockups in 2008 he immediately understood that it would allow him, as someone who's "not an artist", to easily create the types of visuals he could use to tell stories about what he was working on. Mockups "changed the game" for him. Using it, he felt that "suddenly, I'm able to communicate [visually]."
After that, with Mockups in his toolbelt, he would frequently open it up in product meetings. He described a common situation. "I'm getting a suspicion that no one understands what we're talking about... so I'll mockup something in the meeting and suddenly everyone says 'oh, I get what we're doing'." Not only did it help get everyone on the same page, but it was fast enough to use while a meeting was happening. This allowed all the stakeholders to collaborate, participate, and feel heard. From then on, it seemed silly to him to discuss product features the way they had before Mockups. "Why talk with words when we can show the interface?"
Michael relished telling me about his first interactions with Peldi when Balsamiq was a one-man shop and how he became an avid contributor to our forums. It was a perfect fit. As I mentioned earlier, Michael loves to give back and doesn't hoard his ideas.
He soon earned the title "Mr. GetSatisfaction" by busily replying to other people's questions, getting involved in feature discussions, and adding his own tips for using Mockups more effectively. He even started a thread asking others to submit their Mockups fan stories.
Michael doesn't mind taking the time to help people he'll probably never meet. "I've seen others enjoy those features [that I submitted] and it gives you a great feeling." He is typical of some of our most loyal fans and we are indebted and proud to have such a great roster of external contributors like Michael.
In return, he enjoys the results of ideas and contributions that other users have provided. He appreciates that we listen to what people have to say in our forums and get them involved. His view is that if an idea is good, it shouldn't matter who it comes from. "If a customer has an idea and it's a good idea...get over yourself, go do it."
Whether it was Mockups that taught him about good user interface design, his own innate ability to see the big picture, or both, he began using Mockups to teach the software developers on his team how to design applications to be easy to use.
In talking to Michael I quickly realized that he excels at communicating concepts at a level that anyone can understand. He doesn't get bogged down in details and will always get right to the core of any problem. I think this is part of what makes him such a great storyteller.
When talking to developers, Michael stresses the importance of getting the application flow figured out first. He talks about it like designing a house. He says "design the house in such a way that as you move from room to room you always know how to get back" and you shouldn't "have to go through the bathroom to get to the kitchen."
He emphasizes that designing this flow is a separate process from thinking about what the application will look like. He's even created a set of simple mockups to get people thinking about application design independent of the visual appearance or which controls go where on the page. "Work out your flow before walls, carpet, and drapes," he says, referring to the structural and visual aspects of the page. "That's why I like mockups in black and white. So it never looks finished, which lets you stay in the creative zone longer."
His current project is a non-profit organization he started called The Reverse Startup. It is a culmination of his knowledge of designing easy-to-use applications and his life-long interest in sharing his ideas with the world. The Reverse Startup focuses on the art of selling and pitching your ideas. It teaches aspiring entrepreneurs how to get their software product ideas off the ground by going "in reverse". This means starting with the product launch kickoff, then building the product.
Michael says that, these days, building an application is the easy part of software development. "It's the design that's hard." So, he teaches people how to create compelling designs and sell them to potential investors before any code is written. He relies heavily on Balsamiq Mockups to help people flesh out their ideas in the design and ideation phases, and has happily "open sourced" many of his own startup ideas for participants to run with. Michael puts it this way: "I'm trying to pay it forward again and teach people how to take their ideas forward."
In addition to The Reverse Startup, Michael also gives back by running the Boston PHP user group and the Northeast PHP weekend tech conference - which combines PHP, Web, and UX.
Finally, I asked Michael about functionality that he'd like to see us incorporate into Balsamiq Mockups. While he had a lot of great ideas for new features, he was also adamant that Mockups not lose sight of the simplicity that has made it successful. "The one thing this tool does really well, it needs to keep doing well."
Michael loves to have feature debates within his own team, because he recognizes that thoughtlessly adding features to a product makes it harder to use. He's seen too many products lose their focus and appeal by adding "too many bells and whistles."
That said, he noted some limitations of Mockups in its current form and presented some great ideas for how to make it better.
First of all, he feels that, for new users, there isn't enough guidance on how to get started. "We drop them off in this white canvas, and say 'ok, go figure it out'." His solution for this would be to have a "Layout mode", where you could create placeholders for each of the pages in your app or site and then link them up before building them. The added benefit of this would be that it would get you thinking about the layout and navigation before you dive into the details of each screen.
Another frustration he has, as someone who works with many large projects, is the difficulty of managing and navigating between files. "I'm tired of working with separate files. There should be one Mockup project file [per project]." (Editor's note: we hear you Michael (and many others!). It's near the top of our list of "big" projects on our roadmap.)
Michael, we are grateful for your time and all that you have contributed to our product over the years. You're a true Champion!
For more information on Michael and his projects, you can follow him on twitter or check out his LinkedIn page.
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Very interesting and useful post Leon. I have especially appreciated the app flow part. Thanks