Product Management tools and techniques are continually evolving. Here are some that I’ve found to be especially useful recently:
Agile Product Management requires that you setup up a backlog to track storycards. While there are more expensive solutions out there, Google Spreadsheets are a surprisingly good way to get started with backlog management. It’s easily viewable by an entire team, and can be edited simultaneously by team members. You probably will outgrow your spreadsheet after it gets to 100-200 storycards and will want to move to something more sophisticated, but for getting started, Google Spreadsheets is hard to beat.
Do “live” note taking during customer calls with Campfire. Other participants on the call, developers and other team members can see notes as they are written, and can write in their own follow-up questions in real time. Plus it’s all searchable for later. I’ve seen development teams that live in Campfire, so putting the notes straight into there means that the customer feedback actually reaches the engineers it’s intended to influence.
You can also use Campfire to enable team members to communicate what they’ve done and what they’re working on. This practice goes a long way towards eliminating the “status updates” part of staff meetings, which are generally not all that productive. Yammer‘s another good tool for this purpose, if you are not already using Campfire.
Beta customer recruitment is very much a numbers game, a sales process conducted by the product manager. My rule of thumb, based on experience, is that you need about 30 beta program leads for every one active beta user that provides meaningful feedback. Since even a small beta will want at least several active beta users, there’s a significant lead management issue. To address this, use Highrise for managing beta customer recruitment, if you don’t have access to your company’s CRM system or are not allowed to use it for beta programs. Highrise has a free option which is great for getting started.
I know, I’m started to sound like a shill for 37Signals… on to other tools!
Use Google Video Chat to talk with remote developers. Most communication is nonverbal and you get more of this form of communication conveyed with video chat than with a phone call. Unlike the phone, you never have to worry about reaching out to a developer late at night if they’re online. I found it much easier to get Google video chat working than Skype video and iChat video.
Make it a point to connect with all your active customers over IM. When developers come to you with urgent questions that require customer input, you’ll be able to ping several available customers over IM to make an informed decision. For this reason, IM is a huge enabler of Agile Product Management. It’s also great when scheduling meetings and dealing with conference call logistics. Adium (Mac) and Pidgin (Windows) work across all the major IM networks.
Use Google Alerts, Friendfeed, and Twitter Search to stay on top of your market, find beta program prospects, get feedback on your product, and keep up with competitors, standards and events. Get the corresponding RSS or Atom feeds for each search into Google Reader — not necessarily to read every last post — but so you have large, searchable database of what’s happening in your market.
Before meeting with a customer, do your homework on them: what they care about, what challenges they face, and so on. A number of sites let you do this. Currently lesser-known resources for doing this this include Pipl and Twitter. Better known sites include Google Blog Search, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
If your company doesn’t provide you with conference calling and web conferencing, or if you just want to save some money, use DimDim and Free Conference Call. These services are both free and work great.
What do you think? What product management techniques and tools are you planning to use this year?