7 Essential Productivity Tools for Product Managers

As Product Managers our job is to gather information from a variety of different sources, make sense of it all, and then turn it into cohesive product visions and execution plans that end up growing the business exponentially (yes, we’re superheroes).  And we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t already love bringing order to chaos.  But sometimes we need a little help.  Below is a collection of software (mostly Mac-based) that I have found essential in my day-to-day PM work and helps me to always have a handle on what is going on in my projects.

I have broken these down into three categories:

  • Tools for project management. These are the programs that are always open on my Mac.  It starts with a high-level overview of all projects, and progressively gets into more detail and specifics.  I can’t imagine staying on top of all my parallel tasks without these.
  • Tools for wireframing. No designer wants a PM to tell them what a design should look like — and for good reason: it’s not our job.  But sometimes you want to put some of your design thoughts on paper, without being too prescriptive on the execution.  These tools help you do that.
  • Tools for collaboration. These are the tools that increase productivity by freeing documents from your hard drive and putting them in the cloud so you can work on them in collaboration with other stakeholders.

Tools for project management

1. OmniPlan ($150 from The Omni Group)

OmniPlan is the Mac version of Microsoft Project, except that it’s a lot faster to use so you don’t end of abandoning it in the middle of every project because of sheer frustration.  It lets you easily add projects and tasks, track progress, and add specific notes about each action if you need a little more detail.

2. OmniFocus ($80 from The Omni Group)

Describing OmniFocus as a fancy To-Do list (which it is) would be doing it a huge disservice.  It was designed from the ground up to make it easy to input thoughts very quickly (into the “Inbox” area), and then you can separate those thoughts into Goals vs. Tasks.  The tasks are then easily separated into Projects (which work like folders) and Contexts (which work more like tagging).  It is easy to switch views between Projects, Contexts, Flagged items, Urgent items, etc.  I basically start and end every day with OmniFocus.

One of the other huge advantages of using OmniFocus is the iPhone app.  It’s expensive ($20), but well worth it.  One complaint I do have is that it’s not as easy to sync as it should be, which is disappointing.  The only free way to sync OmniFocus Mac with the iPhone App is through sharing on a Wi-Fi network.  There is no central database that syncs automatically between devices.  But this is my only gripe with it.  As long as you have your iPhone on and connected to the same wireless network as the Mac, it works like a charm and cross-syncs beautifully.

3. Evernote (free for a basic account)

I was resistant to using Evernote at first, because I really didn’t know what I would use it for.  Now I’m not sure how I ever got anything done without it.  This is the ultimate cloud application.  It syncs seamlessly between the web site, other computers where you have it installed, and the iPhone app.

Yes, I know, it’s just software for taking notes.  But I use it in so many ways.   Meeting notes, web clippings (get the Firefox plugin!), photos of whiteboard drawings… the list goes on and on.  And the fact that it immediately syncs with your account means that your notes are accessible on all your devices, which really helps when you eventually sit down at your desk and have to make sense of all the stuff you put in there during the day.  Also, the price is right!

Tools for wireframing

4. OmniGraffle Pro ($200 from The Omni Group)

This is the Mac’s answer to Visio (except, you know, better again).  Whenever I start working on a new project, OmniGraffle is my tool of choice to diagram the existing flow and any proposed changes.  I also use this to provide a more visual representation of any data that we have on any of the flows/pages – analytics, CS, user research, etc.  This really helps to get all stakeholders on the same page so you can solve for the right problems.

5. Balsamiq Mockups ($79 for desktop version)

As I mentioned at the start of this post, PMs need to be careful about producing mockups.  But that’s what makes Balsamiq such a perfect piece of software.  It is an easy-to-use, low fidelity mockup and wireframing tool that allows you to get ideas on paper without any visual design elements.  This allows you and the designers to get on the same page without stepping on each others’ toes.  Here is a demo from YouTube:

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Tools for collaboration

6. Google Docs (free)

I have been Microsoft Office free for a while now, and I haven’t missed any part of it.  Google Docs allow you to be truly collaborative on your documents.  You can start a document and other stakeholders can add to it, comment on it, change it, and it’s all saved in real-time.  One of the best features is that multiple users can edit at the same time.  This means that, for example, PMs, designers, and engineers can work on the same document, and come out of a meeting with a finalized spec.

One drawback is that there is very limited version control in Google Docs, so that would be the only word of caution – use file names wisely to provide your own form of version control.

7. Dropbox (free for 2GB of storage)

I haven’t met anyone who has used Dropbox and didn’t fall in love with it.  Dropbox is how you would design file storage if the personal computer didn’t start out with hard drives.  It allows you to store your files in the cloud and access it from any computer — and from your iPhone with the free app.

The iPhone app needs some improvement, particularly to allow you to add folders as favorites for offline viewing, but that is a small complaint.  Dropbox basically means that you can work from anywhere.

Now go and be productive

So that’s my list.  I’d love to hear what other PMs are using to stay on top of their projects, and what your experiences have been with using the software in this post.  Let’s go be (organized) superheroes now…