Top 5 Ways to Get the Most Out of Any Software

Top 5Software is expensive, and I’m not just talking about the price tag. Even free software comes with a cost, the biggest of which is the learning curve. The time it takes to install the software and to learn to use it is an opportunity cost. That time could otherwise be spent on making a sale, or making a widget, or making a child do his homework. But, presumably, the learning curve is worth the investment, because there will be a payoff once the software is up and running. A choice has been made.

What surprises me, though, is how often this learning curve is curtailed too quickly. Investing just a tad more time to go beyond the basics usually means bigger payoffs — sometimes bigger by an order of magnitude. Results happen faster; results are higher quality (less errors); and, the process of producing those results is more enjoyable.

This post is an entry in the current ProBlogger Group Writing Project. This friendly challenge? To post a “Top 5″ list that exemplifies your blog. The project runs to the end of this week and should produce quite an interesting array of postings. We are looking forward to see how our blog stacks up. Go to ProBlogger to see the results.

So, here are my five best tips for how to push that learning curve in order to get the most out of any software.

  1. Learn the Keyboard Shortcuts (and the Mouse Shortcuts) — There are times when it’s faster to use a mouse, and there are times when it is faster to use a keyboard. The killer is when you find yourself frequently going back and forth. For those times, it pays to invest in learning the keyboard shortcut codes in order to lay off the mouse. (Most of the time, the keyboard shortcut for a function is displayed right next to the function in the drop-down menu, but other times you have to search the documentation to find them.) Conversely, software often offers shortcuts that are accessed through the mouse, such as multiple ways to manipulate a scroll bar, and various actions that can occur in margins or gutters. Also, be sure to find out if and how the software takes advantage of those extra bells and whistles on all modern mice. Scroll wheels that spin up and down and tilt sideways often give yo instant access to zooming functions, and the “back” buttons that are triggered with a thumb can be used for all kinds of things.
  2. Customize the Menus and the Keyboard Shortcuts — Most modern software offers a way for you to customize the user interface. You can add buttons to toolbars, rearrange them, and delete buttons you don’t need, etc. In fact, it is often surprising how many alternative buttons are available for essentially the same function, each of which works in only a slightly different manner. Some software even offers hidden functionality that can only be brought out through customization. That is, the function is inaccessible by default, until you assign the function to a hotkey or a tool button.
  3. Read the Forums and the FAQs — Half the time, the best material never makes it into the official documentation. You need to read the forums to see what the power-users who came before you had to say about pushing the software to the limits. If the software project team is really on the ball, then that material might trickle up to the FAQs, so always start there.
  4. Read the Tips-of-the-Day — If the software you’re using has a Tip-of-the-Day feature, it was probably put there for good reason(s). Usually, the tips are programmed to appear in order from novice level to advanced level. So, don’t just give up on them if the first 10, or 20, or 30 tips are painfully obvious. Read them all anyway. I like to whip through them all in one sitting and then turn them off. In some cases, there is a next tip button on the dialog box, so I will just keep clicking that. In other cases, there may be a way to browse the entire tip file at once, perhaps because the tips are stored in a plain ASCII file.
  5. Consider Buying the Pro Version — Don’t automatuically dismiss the idea of paying for the Pro version. SQLYog, a tool for managing MySQL databases, is a classic example of software that comes in a free “Lite” version and a commercial “Pro” version, where the cost of the Pro version is surprisingly low for the power it provides. Trillian, a universal instant messaging client, is another example of where just one feature in the Pro version can make an upgrade well worth the cost.

At this point, you may be wondering, “So, exactly how much learning curve is enough?” I can’t answer that definitively; however, I can offer a couple of suggestions — some rules of thumb — for how to know when the learning curve has not quite gone far enough…

Don’t Live with Annoyances: Say, you’ve been using a piece of software for a month or more and you come across something annoying. Perhaps, some action is more tedious than it ought to be, or the software is prone to letting you make the same mistakes over and over, or something just takes longer than it ought to. Take this as a cue to review your understanding of how the software works. Whenever you find yourself saying, “there must be a better way…” there usually is. Consider turning the tip-of-the-day back on and reading through them again to see if any good ones got overlooked. Peruse the forums again and check for software updates (which might include document updates and/or FAQ updates).

Think You Found a Bug? One particular kind of annoyance is where the software appears to be buggy. Don’t just sit passively and hope that the bug will be fixed in the next version. Report the bug. Even if you think the bug is so obvious that you are certain the development team must know about it, report it anyway. If nothing else, this will reinforce the importance of fixing the bug by adding your vote. Also, if the software has a publicly accessible bug list, it often pays to browse it. Sometimes, you’ll see issues listed, together with proscribed workarounds, that you didn’t even realize were relavent.

The Rule of Three: Software developers (particularly “agile” software developers) have a rule of thumb that says, basically, the third time you’re about to do something the hard way, it’s time to find a better way. This, I think, applies to virtually any type of computer use. When faced with doing something long and tedious that is virtually identical, in either form or function, to something you’ve done twice before, it’s time to look for a better way. It might be time to set up a custom template, or define a macro, or to apply any number of productivity tips that are pertinent to the software at hand.

Don’t Forget: Whenever you come across a strategy or technique that is particularly useful to you, be sure to let us know. Tell us about it at tips@codejacked.com, so that we can pass it along to your fellow CodeJacked readers.

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