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What features could your software be hiding?

24 Apr 2012

Microsoft Office has been around a long time. Since 1989, to be exact. It’s been through countless iterations and upgrades, some major, some minor, each prompted by feedback from users about pain points which drive them crazy.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, it’s a lot easier to change Office than it is to change people’s behaviour. People are habitual creatures – especially at work. They have their jobs to do, and they can rarely afford to dedicate an hour or more to investigating whether or not there is an easier way, even if they had the inclination. 

I was at an event recently where Office efficiency expert Dr Nitin Paranjape walked a small group through a few simple functions in Word. In just one hour he showed us some really cool stuff to do with creating templates and analysing sentences for grammatical accuracy. 

Now, I like to think that my grammar is pretty solid, and everything I write fits a set template on this site – but watching Paranjape work, I noticed that he was able to use the cursor to skip words rather than single characters. Closer examination revealed it was as simple as holding the ‘control’ key while hitting the arrow buttons. Amazed, I experimented further when I got back to the office, and discovered that using the arrows while holding ‘shift’ lets you select. Hold both at the same time? You guessed it – both at the same time.  

Neither of these features will make me a better writer. But the second I used to spend reaching for my mouse every time I wanted to move the cursor across the page or select a word or block of text could easily add up to over a minute over the course of the day. Not heaps, I know, but that’s just a couple of features. What other efficiency functions could be lying dormant inside the apps I know and love? 

Of course, there are sites dedicated to sharing this knowledge. With each iteration of their software, Microsoft and others pour resources into spreading the word about the steps they’ve taken to make users’ lives easier. 

The trouble is, for the most part people don’t want to know. I have enough on my plate making my sentences cohesive and coherent without worrying about whether I’m typing them as efficiently as I could be, and I’m sure the same goes for people using Excel, or Gmail, or any other app out there in the market. 

Also, using apps is the sort of thing people learn by doing. Like driving a car or hitting a cricket ball, you can read a dozen manuals but the first time is going to be awkward, if not downright uncomfortable. 

These features are out there, though. So next time you’re working on an app you use every day – and may have used every day for 20 years or more – take a moment to think about the pain points. It’s probably nothing really troublesome, but just a little irritation that doesn’t quite slow you down enough to be worth doing anything about. 

Chances are, there’s a way around it. All you have to do is explore. 

What functions have you only recently discovered? Any really embarrassing oversights? Post your comments below.