The Product Strategist’s Toolkit – Tools to Help Build Your Startup or Product

I recently met with the Bantam Networks team to talk about their very cool social CRM product.* Just before I left, I had a brief chat with Alex Turnbull, head of Bantam’s product management. I always enjoy meeting other “product guys” (and gals) and try to compare notes. Alex asked how I keep track of a product roadmap and more generally, what tools I use.

I’ll get to those answers shortly but overall, I feel that there’s a gap when it comes to specific tools for those involved in product management and product strategy. For example, developers have FogBugz or Bugzilla (and more), support has Tender or Zendesk (and more), and sales and other staff have innumerable dedicated tools. Now, product strategists also benefit from these applications and they are full of rich and important data that feed into feature lists, prioritization, and a product roadmap. But won’t they don’t do is help manage and facilitate all of this information.

Here’s the bad news: there really isn’t one piece of software — desktop or web-based — that does. There are, however, a number of tools that help both with that and with many of the tasks of the product strategist’s day. They aren’t specifically developed for a product strategist or product manager but still are part of the toolkit nonetheless.

I’m sure my list of tools is not exhaustive but below I’ve done my initial cut at the product strategist’s toolkit. I break it down into four high-level categories, which does not include the more well-defined and familiar areas of bug and issue tracking. I already mentioned a couple of the tools I’d recommend for those areas in the above paragraph. One final note is that I only include tools I’ve used regularly or recommend; there are many more in each category.

User Experience

I hope your product people are actively involved in user experience. They don’t need to be a formally trained or polished UX designer but they should help provide initial guidance and direction based on marketplace knowledge.

For me, I like to dig into user experience and often will do the first pass at a wireframe or use edited screenshots to help designers and developers. Of course, user experience goes beyond screenshots, PDFs, and PSDs:

Data Collection

One thing you’ll find plenty of at startups are opinions. Everyone thinks they know the right set of features to build into a release. Everyone thinks they know the way the customer acquisition page should look. The reality is that without a way to substantiate instincts, there will be many debates with only the strongest or most important person winning. That comes at a cost to users and ensuring that the product is meeting their needs.

I’ve talked and written about analytics for years but many startups simply aren’t making data-driven decisions. They continually look only to customer emails or other anecdotal sources of information and leave out hard data points. Let me be clear, both are needed. This list focuses more on the latter:

Project Management and Collaboration

Project management for product development is the area that is the least refined and with the fewest number of choices. IM, email, and spreadsheets are still major forces in this arena. The key missing features here are: 1) Ways to seamlessly integrate in other data sources from sales, support (including bugs), and other customer-facing portals. 2) The ability to then sort, sift, organize, and prioritize this information. 3) Facilitating detailed views for specific user stories versus a release-oriented or roadmap view. 4) Learning and adapting over time; Pivotal Tracker is the first tool I’ve seen to address this point.

Historically, I used a spreadsheet to help manage my roadmap. There are still benefits to this approach but I’ve now migrated to using a wiki, which is what I showed Alex. The top part of the wiki includes columns for each release (with the estimated release dates). In the release columns are the major and minor stories and bugs for each release, with each element linking to the actual description and more details lower in the page. The last column includes a backlog of feature ideas.

How to tackle roadmaps and similar items differs from startup to startup — but here are some of the tools that can help:

  • Project Management – Basecamp for traditional PM; Pivotal Tracker for story-based planning; Google Docs for requirements and other ad hoc needs; Things (Mac) for individual to do list management
  • Collaboration PBWorks for notes and customizable workspaces; Campfire for group IM; Yammer for internal micro-blogging

Tech

Many product managers and product strategists won’t venture into this next area — tech tools — but it’s amazingly freeing to not have to rely on developers and engineers to help support and improve a product. Whether you actually use this software or work with your team to build out internal products to common problems and tasks, it’s critical to allow your more technical team members to not get bogged down with supporting internal staff or responding to the most basic of customer requests.

End Note
If you have a product or are developing a product that you think I should check out that is not listed above, feel free to leave a comment or get in touch with me. I’m most interested in product development tools similar to Pivotal Tracker but am always happy to review new software and share tools I use with others.

*Note: Bantam is currently not a client but that may change in the future.