An Interview With Leon Barnard From Balsamiq 

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Think about the last time you came across a poorly designed website. Did you jump ship within the first 5 minutes due to frustration, or did you try and slog through the confusing homepage to find what you needed? In either case, you had a terrible user experience. Most bad user experiences result from a combination of rushed planning and haphazard design. 

Balsamiq has made it their mission to rid the world of bad user interfaces. Since 2008 they’ve been providing the much-loved Balsamiq Wireframes tool, which has become the standard for fast, efficient, and collaborative visual mockups of websites and apps. For those new to wireframing, the Balsamiq Wireframing Academy offers practical training for business owners, developers, agencies, and anyone new to UI design. 

We chatted with Balsamiq’s Education Team Lead, Leon Barnard, to learn more about how they make wireframing more accessible and inclusive through their unique course content and learning resources.

For those who aren’t familiar, tell us a bit about Balsamiq. 

Sure. Balsamiq is a user interface wireframing tool. It’s mostly used to help people who are making software sketch it out before they start coding. The company and the tool have been around for 14  years now. 

We only focus on user interface wireframing, not the more complex prototyping. It’s mostly for people who are in the early stages of thinking about their idea and want to get a visualization before they dive into coding.

What was the reason behind creating Balsamiq’s wireframing academy?

This is something that took us a while to develop; it’s not something that we had right away. At the beginning I was hired to help with documentation and tutorials. I was a customer of the product for a very long time, and so I was able to help people not only use the product, but also put myself in their shoes as somebody who’s trying to do a UI design. 

It was an idea that Peldi, our CEO and founder, had for a long time to kind of go beyond that and create a resource that’s dedicated only to helping people do their jobs better and not necessarily just to use the tool better. So it gradually grew out of that. 

And first it was just a few tutorials, and then it was a few user interface guidelines, and then eventually we hired another person and put some resources behind it and turned it into a full fledged site with lots of different material on it.

What does your role as education team lead entail? What do you do day-to-day? 

A bunch of different things. I might be writing an article or creating some kind of other content based on my experience. I might be talking to partners who would be writing articles or creating a course for us, or I might be out promoting the material that we have. 

I may also be talking to people on my team about the types of projects we should be doing in the future or doing some reflection on what we’ve created in the past, making sure that we’re reaching the right audience. We have a user researcher on staff, so she might be talking to some people who are using our site and trying to get their feedback on it.. 

This is a broad question, but who takes your courses? 

Our approach is a little bit different in that it’s very open and we don’t track things very closely. So all the videos that we have are publicly available on our website and YouTube channel. 

I think some people hear about our site and they come to it and they’re deliberately taking the courses and going through them step by step. But also people are finding our articles or material searching on YouTube and it’s the first hit that comes up. 

Or they’re on Google or another search engine. Some of them might find a video that’s in the middle of a course and then maybe just watch that. Whereas others will actually go to our site and go incrementally and step by step through the courses. 

And we’re okay with how they choose to approach that. We just want them to find what’s helpful for them in that moment.

Kind of like meeting the learner where they are. Can you talk a little bit about how the courses are laid out? It’s very video heavy, right? 

Most of our courses are video heavy, yeah. But we have a lot of written content on there as well, and sometimes there’s a connection between them. 

So, either we’ll write an article about one of the videos or vice versa. But we do rely heavily on video. They’re usually pretty short courses, maybe 30 to 60 minutes total, split up into 5 or 10 minute videos, with topics gradually getting into more detail. 

If you view it on our website, it’s an embedded YouTube video and it might have a little bit more description on it. And then there’s a button you can click to go to the next one. But yeah, mostly short video courses. 

What do you hope learners gain from taking your courses? 

We assume that people are busy, and we also assume that people want to learn this material not necessarily as a primary part of their job, but as something they do as part of their job that maybe they don’t have training in. So our goal is to give them what they need to know and not more. 

So it’s not really comprehensive, like “This is going to help you get a career in this field.” These are really practical skills that help you do your job a little better. 

Or maybe you’re kind of curious about the field and want to learn a bit more. So we try to make them short and really focused. Very practical and focused on the things you really need to know. And any shortcuts if possible, rather than something you would take days off and go in depth into. They’re pretty quick, they’re pretty high level. But also it’s trying to be focused on the really practical stuff.

Do you have any tips for first-time course takers who are totally new to the Wireframing Academy? 

Start on our homepage. We try to make that page focused on people who are totally new to the field. So I would say before starting one of our courses, look at what’s there. We have an article that’s just all about what wireframes are. And there’s also a couple short videos on the site about what wireframes are. 

I wouldn’t want people to think that our courses are going to be something they’re not. Some people really want UI design and training, and there’s some really good in depth courses, but ours is to help you learn the basics of wireframing, which doesn’t necessarily take a lot of time or a lot of work. 

So before you dive in, it’s good to get some familiarity with our philosophy about our tool and the techniques we teach by reading or watching some of the short things that we have first.

How can users enroll? 

Like I said, we don’t track any of that. So everything is publicly available on YouTube and our website. There’s no sign up, we have no idea who’s taking these courses or any information about them unless they choose to contact us, or we reach out to them through one of our user research projects. But we don’t really know, and there’s no formal registration or sign up. 

All of your courses are completely free, users don’t have to enter any information. Can you talk about why you did that? For me, it’s a reminder of your philosophy at Balsamiq, which is “we’re good people and we care.” 

That is one of our mantras or philosophies, and that applies to everything. So that can also apply to when people write in for support, we really try to help them and we’re not necessarily just looking to see how we can monetize everything. 

But as far as the courses being free and public, it’s also more fundamental than that. Our original mission that the company founder stated was to rid the world of bad software. So he realized that the tool he designed is one part of it, but creating these courses is also a core part of our mission, which is that if we can help people become better designers, then they will make better software. 

So even though we’re not making money off of it directly, it’s fundamental to what we do as a company. As long as we as a company are doing fine and being profitable, we feel like this is part of our mission. As well as supporting people and organizations that are doing good things for making better software. 

What kind of company or organization would you recommend presenting their courses in the way that Balsamiq does? 

Very few tools are going to be the only solution in their market. And so I think it can be a good way to differentiate your company. There’s this quote about how the best companies don’t fall in love with the solution, they fall in love with the problem. So if you really put yourself in the shoes of your customers, they don’t really want to use your tool. They want to get their jobs done. And getting a job done can be having a tool that’s useful for them, but it can also be teaching them how to do their job better. 

So it’s just thinking a little bit more holistically. And it’s a good way to differentiate your product. Maybe people write into your support, and obviously you want to have great customer support, but maybe some of those questions, really what’s behind them, is that the customer doesn’t necessarily know how to do what they need to do. 

There are always opportunities to educate them when they contact you and reach out to them. And so this is just kind of formalizing that a little bit more, and it’s getting back to providing a good experience for your customers. 

You don’t have to view it as this big, separate thing. It’s really an extension of just thinking about how you can follow through your customer’s journey and improve their experience so they can have a good experience with your products. 

It’s not entirely selfless, you know, it’s really just trying to be a good company, the type of company that you might want to do business with yourself. We don’t ever plan to sell, so our goal is to be in business as long as possible. That changes your thinking.

Absolutely – a lot of listening to your customers and to the people writing in. That leads me to my next question, which is how do you plan topics? Is it based on what people need support for? 

It is. I used to work on the support team, and we’re pretty close with the support team. So if they’re hearing the same topics over and over again, it saves them time by having an article that we’ve written about it or a video or whatever. We get a lot of information from that, but we are also subject matter experts, both myself and my colleague Billy. We come from design backgrounds. So we’ve been designers, we understand the tool, we understand the workflows. 

So we also try to think about what materials we wish that we had access to when we were first starting out, or what are some of the things we’ve learned that we think other people could benefit from? 

We’re not just looking at which articles are getting the most views and writing more stuff about that. We try to understand and we try to ask ourselves what we think would be the most useful, and then combine that with what we’re hearing from customers as well. 

How long does it take you to complete and make a course from the initial idea to launch? 

It takes a long time. That’s one of the things I’ve learned in the few years of really being dedicated to this academy. It takes a long time, and it’s not necessarily just recording the videos. 

It’s planning it out, it’s about thinking how to share them and getting them on your site and promoting them. I think anywhere from four to six months, for a fairly basic course, to even a year for all the final touches on something more comprehensive. 

So that’s why lately we have been outsourcing a lot of our courses by reaching out to people we know that we really respect. We know they create good material and so we pay them to create courses for us, because we’re busy doing a lot of other things. I wish it took less time, but, when you want to do it right, it takes time. 

What do you think the key to success is for the Wireframing Academy? 

I’ll just say this, that first of all, I don’t know if it’s successful or not. I mean, we’re not tracking any metrics. We have no idea what the return on investment is. But aside from that, I think as a company, we have a very long term focus, and so that helps us have a long term focus for our wireframing academy too. 

We have a lot of support from the top of the organization. We have our own separate dedicated budget to pay people to create content and do some promotion and hire people. So that’s really helpful. We’re not fighting the organization for support. 

And also, part of our company philosophy is working incrementally, working gradually. This whole academy started out as just a few tutorials on our site and then a few articles. It took a while before it really became its own full-fledged thing on our site. 

We really care about the content that we put on there and having quality. So even if it takes us longer, we would rather get something right than get something out there that’s only optimized for clicks or whatever. 

We want things that are going to be good five years from now. We’re also not overly focused on trends, but focused more on some of the fundamentals that remain true over the years.

Right, like evergreen content that no matter where or what platform you’re using, it can be applied. 

Exactly. 

So what advice do you have for someone just starting out who may want to create a course?

I would say don’t focus too much on your ROI, your return on investment, right away, because it might take time, it might be hard to quantify. If you’re just doing it because you want to convert that into revenue, maybe hold off on expecting it right away. I think it’s okay to track that and make sure that it’s a good investment, but give it some time to develop first. 

And know your audience. Definitely know who you’re creating content for and what their needs are, what’s lacking. I think one of the worst things you could do is create material that is already available for them. Try to find the material you can’t easily find out there already. 

I’d also say be unique. Try to find something that is missing. Be human, it’s okay to be a little informal, not everything has to be perfect. Be opinionated. I think if you can establish yourself as an authority or an expert in a specific area, people will really respect that. 

Don’t focus too much on what other people are writing about. You can think, “Hey, when I used to do this, this is a trick that I learned” or something like that. And focus on quality. Our guiding philosophy is that if we create great content then people will find it, and hopefully they’ll tell their friends about it. 

But if you focus too much on the marketing aspect of it, people can sense that and they’ll avoid that. They’ll say, “Okay, I understand that you’re trying to get me to do this because you want to put me into this funnel and get me to buy your product.” So try to be as authentic as you can and try to make it as good as possible. 

Because I think that ideally, hopefully, in the world of the internet, the stuff that’s the best is the stuff that will eventually stand out and stand the test of time.

Contact us today to learn more

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