Articles / Tools of the trade

There’s a story about a furniture maker who was asked for a hammer. She pulled out her toolbox and carefully laid out a selection of more than 30 different types of hammer. “Which one?”, she said.

When going into a new client, I don’t take hammers, but I do go in with a range of different tools, some of which are more specialised than others.

Project planning

Merlin screenshot

Merlin is by far the best project management application that I’ve used on the Mac (and I’ve tried most of them). It’s not cheap, but has the great advantage of producing files that are compatible with Microsoft Project. When you’re working in a mixed economy, that is essential.

If you have the fortune to work in a Merlin-only environment, then there are all sorts of additional features that allow you to use Merlin as the hub of your whole project. For example, you can attach, to each task, elements such as additional information, events, files, issues, risks and checklists. And then you can generate reports which pull out this information in easily readable formats.

Document creation

Google drive screenshot

For group collaboration on documents, I’ve still not found anything to beat Google’s Drive. Its real-time editing and commenting features are wonderful to see in action. I’m afraid Microsoft’s Office 365 just doesn’t come close in terms of usability, but be aware that Google provides just the functions that the majority of me use. If you’re an Office power user, then you might be dissatisfied.

The main problem with Google Drive comes when you need to take a document and turn it into a finished product, with branding applied. Quite often, this process then requires a wholesale reformatting in a standalone word processing or desktop publishing application like Microsoft Word or Pages.

Diagram creation

Omnigraffle screenshot

When I need something that’s more capable of creating complex flow charts or wireframes, then I tend to use Omnigraffle. Like Merlin, it’s quite expensive, but I’ll happily pay for software when it’s of this sort of quality. Transferring files to and from Visio (the Microsoft standard for this type of tool) is effortless. I’ve not found any problems yet, but I do tend to keep my demands quite simple in this area!

Sometimes, a specialist diagramming tool is required. One that’s designed for a specific context. For example, I use Balsamiq Mockups for creating working mockups of software interfaces – particularly web applications. By creating diagrams that look hand-drawn, but are still “functional” (in that you can navigate between pages using links), it makes communicating ideas to the client much easier, without the distraction of “I don’t like that colour”.


Doceri screenshot

I don’t like presentations in general. It’s partly down to my philosophy that face-to-face time is better spent in conversation. However, in my line of work, you have to do them, and you have to do them well. So I’ve learnt to find ways to make presentations far more of a conversation than a monologue.

Apart from the obvious things – like displaying pictures and diagrams rather than bullet points (see Presentation Zen for great advice) – I’ve found that being at the opposite end of the room from the screen helps a lot. It means that I can distribute the audience’s attention between me and the screen. That’s then made even better if you can highlight or annotate things whilst you’re talking.

Rather than being stuck behind a laptop screen during the presentation, I often use Doceri, which is an app that sits on my iPad and on my laptop. It allows me to control the Mac from the iPad wirelessly, and, when I need to, simply annotate what’s happening on screen.

I’ve tried a number of such tools, and Doceri has proven to be the easiest, and safest, to use “in the wild”.


iThoughtsX screenshot

Having a tool that can help you make sense of a bundle of information and ideas is essential in my line of work.

Currently, my preferred tool is iThoughtsX. It’s for Mac and iOS only, and enables me to very quickly:

  • Generate ideas on a mind map
  • Add notes, links and images
  • Rearrange ideas
  • Generate rough reports and presentations

Its most useful feature though is its ability to import and export from a very large range of other, similar tools.

Posted: 17 December 2015

Tags: Projects