A simple but effective Product Manager's toolkit

This post was originally published on the AOP website on 10 August 2011.

By ProdPad Co-Founder Janna Bastow

Working in a startup environment means I've got to be pretty creative in finding great tools for a low cost.

Personally, I'm a big fan of not over-complicating matters, so it's essential to me that whatever I use, it makes things easier, not harder.

It might seem obvious, but, if your tools aren't working, change them. You don't need to use some Sharepoint integrated behemoth if it's slowing you down. Don't be afraid to try a couple of new tools, regardless of what's been handed down to you.

Finding the right tools for your team

  • An important point to consider is who else is going to use these tools:
  • On the technical side, you'll need something that captures the right information without bogging the developers down with process.
  • On the non-technical side, you'll need something that doesn't scare people.
  • Submitting a bug or requesting a feature should be quick and painless. Often in the past, I've run into the problem that people stopped reporting bugs because the bug tracker asked too much of them.
  • On the flipside, I've run into problems on the development side, where too many conflicting priority statuses were getting in the way.
  • A developer shouldn't have to worry about whether 'Urgent' priority is more important than a 'Critical' issue. They just need to know which one should be done first, or whether both are so important they need to get another person in to help.
  • Get hands-on in various areas of the business, so that you can understand who's going to get the most value out of which tools.

Recommended tools of the trade

Here I'm making some recommendations for a solid product management toolkit, based on tools I've either used or have heard good things about. Everything here is relatively low cost and easy to get started with, but pretty much all of these scale up to 'Enterprise' levels, built to handle larger team sizes as needed.

Tracking issues and features

It's important to find a way to show others in the company what kind of progress is being made and how that affects them. Within my own organisation, BraveNewTalent, we use Trac, an open source and customisable ticket tracker. It's good at not getting in your way, and the wiki-style interface allows the team to adjust the layout of reports and bug lists however needed, while acting as a repository for all of our collective technical knowledge.

I've also heard and seen good things about Basecamp, Pivotal Tracker, and AgileZen, all of the project management variety, and it seems that there's a new player in the space every day.

To find a tool that works for you, take a good look at what you're using, and ask yourself and others why it's not working, and explore other options to see if there's something else that will better suit your needs. Changing an issue tracker, though, shouldn't be taken lightly, as it will always present at least some sort of learning curve as the team adjusts to the new process.

Wireframing and Prototyping

On the wireframing and prototyping side of things, try something like Mockingbird or the more popular and more feature rich Balsamiq mockups.

I prefer the former; I find Mockingbird to be light and easy to create and share wireframes with others in the team. Again, it does a good job of not getting in the way, and is basic enough that I can provide access to others in the company to try their hand at illustrating what they'd like to see built.

However, Balsamiq's tool is more feature rich, allowing the creation of more detailed and complex interfaces, plus has a better method for saving groups of elements for use in later projects. As it's a desktop product instead of a web application, it's not dependent on having an Internet connection to get things done.

Testing usability

Usability testing is essential, but doesn't need to be a complicated process in most cases.
Publisher click heatmapsThese heatmaps were generated based on 3 popular homepages: BBC, ITV and The Guardian; with a free tool from UsabilityHub. This one in particular is called ClickTest, and allows you to upload any screenshot. It then sends anonymous users, or users that you've directed there, and has them click based on your custom question.

In this case, I asked users to complete a simple task: "Click on the most prominent item on the page". The results show just that, and should highlight right away some insights about what's working and what isn't. This was a free exercise, and took no more than 5 minutes to set up, followed by a single tweet to drive a few people to it.

The other tools from UsabilityHub are handy, too, with FiveSecondTest allowing you to ask a series of open questions about a page, gathering first impressions of your landing pages, and NavFlow measuring a user's journey through a series of pages, designed for optimising a registration or checkout flow, or similar conversion funnels.

Each of the tools provides you with a report of the results, clearly showing both the raw and the aggregate data. Starting with these tools is free and easy, and the Pay As You Go model allows them to scale to your needs instantly.

User Feedback

If you're looking for something a little more hi-fi and in person, Silverback is a great app that allows you to capture a user's actions as well as record their facial expressions and voice as they browse through your site.

Silverback has a rich feature set, but is only available on Mac OS. If you've got a more flexible budget and you're looking for something that will work regardless of your operating system, TryMyUI is web-based, and videos people not in your office, but over the web, based on the demographics and instructions you specify. 


Again, these tools are free or relatively low cost, but they all scale up to 'enterprise' versions to handle whatever you might throw at them. Keep in mind that you don't always need the most feature-rich or robust tool.

For example, a simple mockup serves the purpose just fine in many cases – wireframes don't need hundreds of different states or details to illustrate their point, and those details often stand in the way of providing clarity about what you need the interface to actually do.

As for usability testing, keep it simple. Jakob Nielson famously did a study some time ago that showed that feedback from just 5 users is all that's really needed to sift out 75% of issues with any interface. This simple yet effective product management toolkit has been put together in an effort to keep things simple so that the focus can be on on actually delivering the product.