How Do Product Managers Capture Ideas?

Michael Ray Hopkin wrote recently about the importance of capturing ideas:

Ideas are the fuel for great products. […] The more ideas you capture the more likely you are to get the perfect new product or feature. Many times ideas will seem silly or absolutely unobtainable; write them down anyway. Over time circumstances change, technology improves and opportunities appear that you do not expect.

The conversation only lightly touched on the mechanics of capturing ideas, and knowingly avoided the sometimes difficult and awkward process of sorting ideas, so I thought we’d talk about the former today and the latter next time.

Where Do Ideas Come From?

Everywhere! Trusted customers. Not-so-trusted customers. Sales. Customer service. Your own head. The competition.

There’s potential to trip over good ideas all day long. Sometimes from unexpected people in the most unexpected of places.

How Do You Capture Those Ideas?

Some people do it the old fashioned way with a notebook and pen. Some prefer online services like EverNote or Google Docs.

My old system involved Post-It Notes. Actually, my old system was Post-It Notes. It worked for awhile, but wasn’t very efficient (“Where did that note go?!?!”). Eventually I started to look and feel like Leonard from Memento, and knew something needed to change.

My Personal Approach

I’ve developed two different methods for how I capture ideas these days, one for work and one for home.

At work, I take a single notebook with me everywhere to jot things down. Product ideas, regardless of source or my personal snap judgment, I transfer over to our idea Wiki and sort them into categories (new game ideas, billing, networking, etc.).

In real life, I have notebooks everywhere–one next to my bed, one in my backpack, one in my car–so I can jot down ideas as they strike me. I’ll then transfer the more pressing ideas to Stickies on my iMac, and pick them off one at a time. (Apparently, at a smaller scale, my Memento-style approach still works.)

I’m an amateur screenwriter in my spare time, and I’ve started using Voice Memo in my iPhone to specifically capture ideas for scenes I’m writing or in the process of re-writing.

Why Two Different Approaches?

I didn’t develop two approaches purposefully; they evolved naturally. I think some of it has to do with scale–there are simply more ideas for work than for some of the personal matters I work on.

Speed and turnaround time are also a factor: In real life, the ideas I have can usually get knocked out pretty quickly, much faster than the time it takes for ideas at work to move through the validation process and (if merited) into production. As a result, my desktop stickies are much more manageable.

A big factor, maybe the biggest factor, is the ability to share ideas. What I like best about the Wiki at work is that it’s viewable to everyone on the team and everyone in the company. There’s a level of transparency there that encourages people to keep contributing ideas and encourages new ideas, riffing off some of the ideas we’ve already captured.

How About You?

What’s your process like for capturing ideas? Do you leave voicemail messages for yourself at work? Tattoo your body with product ideas you need to remember? What works, what doesn’t?

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8 thoughts on “How Do Product Managers Capture Ideas?

  1. I’ve been using the Thoughts app on my iphone. Neat little app that lets you share voice recordings, pictures and notes with other people.

  2. Chris, my approach has been to use multiple notebooks for different topics of ideas. However, that’s been difficult to scale. I’m now tinkering with a single (physical) notebook, and Evernote (online and iPhone). Because it has an iPhone app and is with me everywhere I go, Evernote seems to be winning out.

    Regardless of how you do it, the act of writing down ideas is critical to progress and success.


    PS. Thanks for the link!

  3. Add me to the evernote list too. Although I’m on a droid, so I have to use the mobile web ui for now. Which is ok for quick notes. I need to find a voice recorder for droid (been using google voice – set up so that when I call myself it goes straight to vmail) for ideas when I’m driving.

    I also have the everpresent notebook, which usually gets all of the sketched ideas (I tend to “invent” spatially, and re-hash ideas in diagrams). I also have a couple visio stencils that I use for rapid visio-drawings of stuff (I use visio enough that it actually is “rapid” for me).

    Anecdotally, I’ve scanned in sketches from my notebook and emailed to clients (cc: evernote post-by-email addr) for quick discussions over the phone.

    Looking forward to hearing other people’s ideas – great topic, Chris!


  4. @Michael – Thanks for the inspiration. On the one hand, ideas are a dime a dozen… but on the other, that doesn’t mean they should be dismissed!

    @Scott – I didn’t do it often, but there was a period where I was leaving myself idea voicemails, too! This is pre-smartphones so I was fast-dialing my work phone from the car. That system quickly proved untenable for me, combined with my insane Post-It Note system 🙂

  5. Hey Chris,

    Thanks for keeping your blog thoughts short and to the point – its very helpful when I’m trying to get through my blog roll in the morning.

    On a bit of a side note, how did you manage to foster a culture of community such that people actually DO riff on your ideas? In a culture that has grown up using the “reply-to-all” button as the formal way to communicate thoughts, we’ve had a tough time converting to a more asynchronous, wiki-style pattern for communication.

  6. Hi Patrick –

    I think the wiki ends up being kind of the communal fire that everyone can warm their hands around, but isn’t really for us a forum, per se; it’s a jumping off point to conversations in real life.

    We have biweekly meetings where we can run through the day-to-day but also look at the bigger picture. Thanks to the wiki, anyone can see what’s happening, what’s been proposed, and then expound on that in the last half of the meeting.

    We’re also fortunate that the seating arrangement here really helps foster communication–for the most part, we’re all seated in the same “pod” so everyone’s within earshot/walking distance. Being able to just stand up and say, “What?” helps cut down on the reply-to-all-ness.

    Also: I’ve got a nice, comfy couch in my space that fosters community, too!

    – Chris

    PS: I think you’ve just given us another topic to dig into 🙂

  7. Oh, the couch definitely helps…

    Here’s food for thought as you dig into it – the key part of your response that I struggle with is that “anyone –can– see what’s happening”. The whole organization has the capability to see it, but only a handful of tech-minded people actually take advantage of that.

    I’ve started to resign myself to not thinking big on this one, because it doesn’t seem to scale – organizing your own ideas is (relatively) easy, gathering those of your team is possible, but reconstructing communication lines for the entire organization a serious challenge.

  8. Hi Chris,

    I’m stuck on Windows Mobile for 6 more months, so for now I typically email myself–or capture into Evernote. When I’m less electronic, I write on a napkin and save in my wallet, then perhaps scan in later.

    I like the Wiki idea – I’m wondering if ideation might be something for Google Wave, particularly for distributed teams? The community’s comments here remind me I need to setup an easy way to voicemail myself.

    All in a day’s work!

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