As a Product Manager, you need to clearly explain product requirements to Engineering, Sales, Product Marketing, UX, and Executives. But hand-waving and white-boarding often lead to confusion and misinterpretation. In this post, I explain how to use mockups to bridge that communication gap—so you can quickly align stakeholders on your product vision, reduce misunderstandings, and minimize revisions.
Describing software functionality is always difficult. Hand-waving and white-boarding can only take you so far. Not to mention that each person you talk to will interpret the same message in a different way based on their past experiences, cultural bias, personality, and role within the organization.
That’s why mockups are one of the best communication tools a Product Manager has. They help you quickly illustrate a concept, and avoid communication gaps.
Here’s how you can use mockups to communicate with different audiences inside and outside your organization.
Leveraging the UX Team
While you should learn how to create mockups and wireframes yourself, be mindful of how you use that skill. If you do it too often, you may step on the toes of your UX team (if you have one), and you may lose focus on the areas where you add the most value.
Instead, collaborate with your UX team to create the mockups and wireframes required to illustrate the functionality needed for each release.
I recommend scheduling whiteboard sessions with your lead designer and lead engineer to discuss the business value, proposed workflows, and user stories for the next release. It is useful to sketch on the board your vision for the new feature set and get feedback and additional input from your design and engineering leads.
Once the team agrees on the plan, then the design team can take it from there and start the collaboration on building the necessary wireframes to test with customers, get buy-in from Engineering, and from the Executive team.
Conveying your ideas to the Executive team
Executives usually set the company strategy and overall product vision. Then they rely on Product Managers to show them how that vision will come to life.
Let’s be real. For each release, it’s not likely that your Executive team will read all your detailed Epics and Stories. So you need a faster way to get their buy-in and support. I’ve found that the easiest way to communicate with Executives is by creating mockups that walk them through key flows of the application and clearly describe the new features your team is working on.
Walking Executives through the proposed features using mockups will give them a good feel for what the software/feature will look like and what the key interactions will be. But before you start, make sure to set expectations on what they are about to see before you show them the mockups. These are just mockups to show interactions, and are not fully finished screens.
If your visual design is not yet final, it might be better to do the demo with lower fidelity mockups to avoid unnecessary distractions. It’s easy to get stuck discussing the color of a button, when what you really wanted to show was a new set or interactions or screens.
Keep in mind that this step can be very time-consuming. My advice is to educate your Executive time around Lean principles so they are comfortable with low fidelity mockups, instead of having to create full detailed wireframes every time you need buy-in on the functionality of the new release.
For this audience, you won’t need to detail every single scenario or corner case. The “happy path” works great. It is also best to show the mockup running on your target device. For example, if your target device is a tablet, then showcase a mockup as a clickable PDF in a tablet. That will give the audience a better idea of how the software will look and feel.
Using mockups for validation and usability testing with customers
Mockups are a tremendous tool for usability testing and for validating your features with real users before you build them. Work with your UX team to determine the best mockup or prototype approach depending on your type of test.
Aside from formal user testing and validation, it’s great to have your prototypes handy to share with key customers on short notice. You can put your ideas in front of real users and get feedback during onsite visits, trade shows, and quick video conferences, not to mention you’ll strengthen the relationship with that customer in the process.
Feature planning with Engineering
Providing click-through prototypes to engineering is a very effective way to communicate the details of the features they need to build. Consider using mockups during:
- Sprint planning: It is much easier to understand the requirements from a mockup than just explaining or white-boarding the concepts. Plus since your engineering lead was involved in this process from the beginning, he’ll be able to back you up and tackle any of the rabbit holes that the Engineering team might want to dive into.
- Writing Agile stories and acceptance criteria: Usually, stories and acceptance criteria are a bunch of bullet points that attempt to clearly outline the requirements. The problem is, it’s often more complex to write this information than to represent it visually. Plus, nobody wants to read pages and pages of stories. Your mockup can convey most of your desired functionality as annotated wireframes, which will speed up development and ensure everybody understands what the final goal is.
The goal is to demonstrate key workflows, not to animate every single interaction of the software. Also, don’t spend unnecessary time and resources creating pixel-perfect prototypes. They are not needed for this audience at this stage.
If you have a UX pattern library, then creating the mockup is very easy since you can reuse all those patterns and focus on the interactions.
Leveraging a pattern library also saves you from creating some common flows since your developers should already know how certain things work. For example, you can just say “this comes up in a pop-up,” and your team should already know all the details of how pop-ups work in your application.
Spending this time in advance might seem like overkill, but believe me, it will save you a lot of time throughout the execution of your sprints.
Using mockups for Sales enablement (Product Marketing and Sales)
Last but not least, mockups can help you explain complex concepts to your Product Marketing team before the software is released. With a better understanding of what the software will do, they can start working with you on messaging and sales collateral even before the actual software is ready.
It is also very common for Product Managers to assist Sales in closing deals with strategic customers. During the sales process, prospects usually want to see a roadmap and understand where the product is going. In this scenario, showing a mockup can give you credibility that you are actually working on a particular feature, and it can boost the prospect’s confidence in the direction of your product.
A word of caution: make sure the prospect understands that these designs are preliminary and are subject to change. That’s why it’s better to show low-fidelity mockups to avoid giving the impression that the feature is “almost ready”.
Also, make sure you are the only person showing preliminary mockups to potential customers. You do not want to leave these prototypes behind for the Sales force to showcase at will. This should only be used as a strategic tool to help close key opportunities. Consider yourself warned.
The bottom line
Remember a big part of what we do as Product Managers is communicate with and align various teams. Using mockups can reduce misunderstandings, quickly align stakeholders on your product vision, and minimize revisions. Try making this a standard practice in your overall product process, rather than a one-off exercise.