Customer Development with Microsoft Visio


Since this writing there appear to be a number of emerging quality tools such as Creately that might do a better job than Visio.


At ManyWheels we are using Microsoft Visio to reduce our market risk by rapidly, cheaply, and iteratively building clickable web demos for prospective customers using this stencil.  

Risk?  What risk?

Anyone who has been through a start-up or two knows about risks.  Financing risks, team risks, and technology risks are some of the most frequent sources of the entrepreneur’s sleepness nights.

But as technology costs have moved lower and lower one risk dwarfs all others:  market risk.  Market risk is the start-up equivalent of a bridge-to-nowhere: you build a product that nobody wants.  

I try to reduce market risks by challenging my assumptions with two key questions:  “Am I building something that people want?  How do I know this?”

(The first question is easy to answer.  The second one is a bit tougher…)

So how can I prove to myself that I’m mitigating market risk?

Ways to Mitigate Market Risk

“What’s your problem?”

The most obvious way is to ask prospective customers about their problems.  This process works up to a point; you can get high-level needs and concerns but ultimately most people need to see something to provide specific feedback.

“Do you have 5 hours to read my spec?”

The traditional route is to “write it all down”.  How many prospective customers want to read your detailed 30-page spec?  None that I’ve been talking to.  Good luck.

HTML Mockups – the traditional approach

Another option advocated by 37 signals is “Interface First”:  build mockups in HTML before you start writing any code.  Obviously if you’re very comfortable (and fast) working directly in HTML then go for it.  Personally, I find that even HTML is still too slow because managing and organizing lots of tags can get really tedious.

What I really need

Over the past 6 months I’ve been struggling with a better way to manage this process in my prospective customer conversations.

The perfect tool for me is one that:

  • I already know how to use
  • is free
  • allows me to export in HTML to show to other people
  • allows for rapid iteration

Visio to the Rescue…

I know that professional web developers have a lot of different tools for building wireframes.  After a brief search, the option that best fit my needs is the newest version of Microsoft Visio.  It isn’t free, but you can download the trial version from Microsoft and use it for 60 days.

(If you’re ultra-cheap, you can even time the download at the beginning of the month to squeeze a few exta weeks out of the trial.)

You will need the interaction designer’s nail gun (3rd edition), a set of instructions and stencils for building web pages.  You can get an idea of the possible by checking out their demo

We’ve been using this tool to do our mockups of ManyWheels with prospective customers.  After a few hours we became proficient with backgrounds, foregrounds, links.  We built a few of our own stencils that allowed for rapid creation of menus, buttons, etc using our color scheme.

The real power of the tool is its ability to allow an entrepreneur to present information differently to different people.  Some people need to see a sequence diagram.  Some just want to see a page.  Others want to see blocks on screens.  All of this is a snap in Visio, plus you can hyperlink it together and publish a web site instantly.

My Experiences with ManyWheels

When we first began engaging the market on our ideas for ManyWheels we started with meetings and phone calls.  We listened.  We asked people about their problems.  We sat next to the people doing the work and asked them about their frustrations.  We tried to get a sense for the market dynamics and what type of solutions might work.  And we learned a ton about the solution we thought we needed to build.

Or so we thought.  

Once we started creating mockups and showing them to prospective customers the conversations took on laser-like focus.  People instantly rejected many of our core ideas and offered alternatives.  Some customers wanted to see high-level data flows to understand how ManyWheels would work in their business.  It took us several iterations like this to get to the point where the conversations moved from “interesting” to “when can I get it”?

(man, those are beautiful words when you’re struggling to identify a solution.)

In Conclusion

My experiences over the last 6 months have reinforced what countless others have already learned:  get a mockup in front of people as soon as you possibly can.  Nothing will focus your conversations and get specific feedback like showing people a possible solution.  Moreover, it sends a message that you’re serious, that this product is really goign to be built, and that you’re thinking critically about the problem.

Fortunately, you don’t need a web designer to do it anymore.  Spend a 1/2 day with Microsoft Visio and the stencils above and you’ll be building worakble mockups in no time.  


  1. Martin October 17, 2009 at 8:31 pm #

    An alternative is doing it in Excel as described in

  2. Dwight October 30, 2009 at 1:39 pm #

    Hey Kevin,

    FWIW: The best tool I have used for screen mockups is Balsamiq:

    Great stuff.

  3. Rob November 25, 2009 at 10:07 am #

    Not only did I not know people still used Visio for anything, I didn’t even know you could still buy it.

  4. Kevin Costco November 25, 2009 at 11:19 am #

    I download free demos, and at the end of the month, buy a new computer so I can install the next free demo. Given that computers are now cheaper than Microsoft software, this works out fine.

  5. Brandon Watson November 25, 2009 at 12:48 pm #

    Have you checked out Sketchflow from Microsoft?

    It’s in my product division…very cool product, and I think you will find it more useful than Visio. But use the tool that is most comfortable for you. The Balsamiq tool is also very good.

  6. Shalin March 6, 2015 at 5:38 am #

    Visio is very expensive since I prefer to use visio alternatives like Creately since they are web based and platform independent.


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