Computer software companies don’t sufficiently consider their products and developments from the point of view of the average user

Man Scratching HeadThis is something that I’ve contended for a long time, and I’ve often tried to reassure my computer support clients that it’s not their fault that they are struggling with programs that are ill-designed in the way that the user interacts with them.

Here’s an example in Windows 10. You enter “tablet mode” by clicking on the “notification tile” in the system tray (the area at the bottom righthand corner of the screen) and then clicking on the “Tablet mode” tile . Having got into tablet mode, how on earth do you get back to desktop mode? There is no tile anywhere that says “desktop mode” and the tile that said “tablet mode” still says “tablet mode”. In fact, you tap or click on the “tablet mode” tile again. Huh? How do arrive at that? In my case, by trial and error.

Tablet Mode Tile

The wording on the tile doesn’t change whether you are in Tablet mode or Desktop mode

This is just plain stupid. The “tile” looks exactly the same as it did before entering tablet mode. If they are going to use the same “tile” to “toggle” between desktop mode and tablet mode then why not label the tile with something meaningful instead of something that is actively misleading? And while I’m whingeing on about this, why on earth did they put the control for switching between these modes inside a part of the screen accessed by clicking on an icon labelled “notifications”? Since when did switching between modes have anything to do with “notifications”?

Here’s another example. This time from Apple. When I dutifully began the upgrade of IOS on my iPhone to version 9.3, I made the mistake of looking away for a minute or two. When I came back it said the upgrade had failed. This is the type of thing that seriously discombobulates “normal” users and deters them from doing things like upgrading operating systems. Anyway, I started it again and kept my eye on it this time. At one point it asked for my passcode before continuing. I put it in and everything completed normally. Clearly, the previous “failure” was caused by nothing more serious than my missing a request to put in my passcode. I can not believe that it would not be possible for the “failure notice” to have said something like “Sorry, but you didn’t enter your passcode when requested. Start the update again and enter your passcode when requested”.

Either they don’t do enough testing of their products on “ordinary users” or they don’t take enough notice of the results. I suspect that the clever people have spent all their time and effort getting the underlying programming to work and then they move on to something else. Everybody involved has probably spent so long using this piece of programming, with its particular user interface, that they just don’t realise that it doesn’t actually make much sense to anyone looking at it for the first time (or the nth time, come to think of it).

Notifications Icon

Why is the choice of Tablet mode or Desktop mode revealed by clicking on the Notifications icon?

It’s OK for the people who work in this technology. We have learned to push and press and prod to see what happens, because we know that this is how we learn all about it. We have an idea about the limits of any damage that can be caused and how to make sure we don’t risk anything important when playing with new stuff. But the ordinary, average, user of this stuff (at least as far as my own computer support clients are concerned) never gets to this stage of playing with the technology and doesn’t want to – and shouldn’t have to. The ordinary, average, user doesn’t want to risk “breaking” something and being worse off than they were before they touched it. S/he doesn’t want to risk suddenly finding that their emails are no longer accessible, or their music or photos have just disappeared (for ever?). This must surely spoil their experience of using the technology in the same kind of way that a 400 mile car journey is going to be spoiled and doom-laden if you fear that the engine is going to die if you change the radio station.

Puzzled Computer UserIn the above case of the “tablet mode”, it happened to me when I was with a client. Since I never use tablet mode on a Windows computer, I didn’t immediately know how to get back to desktop mode. I was slightly embarassed by this, but the client said that she was pleased to see that this kind of thing can happen to an “expert” and that it isn’t necessary to panic when such things happen.

This kind of problem with the user interface is a big shame and a wasted opportunity. Any technology company that could significantly improve in this regard could gain massive amounts of market share by attracting ordinary average human beings who know they need to use this technology but who constantly experience a low level fear of something going wrong that they don’t know how to interpret or fix.

On the other hand, if they did do a better job then maybe my clients would need me less. Hmm.

What free software do I like to see on a Windows computer (2 of 2)?

ToolsFollowing on from last week, here is the second half of the list of my favourite free Windows Utilities


Dropbox

I think that the main reason that Dropbox has made such huge inroads into the market for providing “cloud” storage is that their approach makes it easy to grasp what is going on and how to use it. When you install Dropbox, a folder is created (called, not un-unaturally, “Dropbox). You treat this folder just like any other folder except that anything in this folder is copied to “the cloud” and back to the Dropbox folder of any computer that is signed into the same Dropbox account. It works between Windows PCs, Macs, Android devices, and IOS devices, so data can be shared across all those “platforms”.

Source: Dropbox

Licensing: Free for 2gb of storage space (which you can increase by doing things like referring Dropbox to others), or go for a paid plan if you need much more space.


Faststone Image Viewer

Although the interface is beginning to look a bit old, this is still the easiest and most intuitive way that I have found of organising and viewing images on a Windows computer. It’s also got its own image editor. If you hate the way that the likes of Picasa take over your photos, try this free program.

Source: Faststone Image Viewer

Licensing: Free.


Firefox

To my mind, this is still the best web browser. There are loads of add-ons available, thanks to the fact that the browser is “open source” (so anyone can write add-ons for it). This can be a double-edge sword, of course. I have got some add-on in my Firefox that has stopped my Barclays online banking from working for ages. One day I might track it down but, in the meantime, I just find it easier to do online banking via a different browser (Chrome). As I have said before, it is a good idea to have at least two browsers on your computer (probably Microsoft’s Internet Explorer plus one other) so that you can try using the other browser if a particular website mis-behaves using your normal one.

Source: Mozilla Firefox

Licensing: Free


Gadwin PrintScreen

I’m not as happy with this product as I used to be as it has started to become somewhat intrusive (I can’t find a way to stop it popping up every time I re-boot or awaken my computer, for instance). Nevertheless, it’s still a great utility for capturing part of a screen, the whole screen, or a specific window.

Source: Gadwin

Licensing: Free


MalwareBytes

My favourite malware finder and eliminator. If this one leaves something behind, then I install AdAware or Spybot (qv).

Source: Malwarebytes

Licensing: Free


Power ISO

I use this program to make files on disk that can be opened just as if they were CDs or DVDs. This is very useful for having many CDs and DVDs close to hand as they can be permanently stored on a hard drive. This program will also copy and burn CDs and DVDs without any of the nerdiness needed to use Nero Burning (for example).

Source: PowerIso

Licensing: These days it is a paid program, but you can try before you buy. Lucky people (like me) have an older free copy.


SpyBot

If all of the best antimalware programs (Malwarebytes, AdAware, and Spybot) can find 90-95% of malware, then running all three should find about 99% (unless, of course, there are some particularly clever malware programs that can avoid all such programs). I think Spybot has probably been around for the longest time of all such programs.

Source: SpyBot

Licensing: I have only ever used the free version


Treesize Free

Why has Microsoft never included this type of utility as part of Windows? Great for knowing where all your hard drive space has gone as it shows just how big every folder and sub-folder is.

Source: Treesize Free

Licensing: Free


What free software do I like to see on a Windows computer (1 of 2)?

ToolsThere are a few free utilities and programs that I have come to take completely for granted over the years. So, the least I can do for them is to give them a little plug while drawing them to your attention. I’ve mentioned some of them before, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve another mention.

Here, in alphabetical order, is the first half of my list, together with links so that you can download them for yourself. The list will continue in next week’s blog.


AVG Free

This is very good antivirus software in that it does its job and doesn’t hassle you too much with annoying popups or get into nooks and crannies of your system that it really doesn’t need to touch.

Source: AVG Free

Licensing: Free, if you manage to download the correct version. Although less devious than they used to be, you could still very easily aim to install the free version and, 30 days later, find that you are being asked to pay for the paid version as you had actually downloaded the trial version of the paid version instead of the free one. Confused? A cynic might say that that is AVG’s intention when offering the different versions of their product.


Adaware

Anti-malware software. I usually turn to Malwarebytes (see next week’s blog) as my first line of attack on an infected machine, but if I don’t think that Malwarebytes has fixed it then my next line of attack is either Adaware or Spybot (qv)

Source: Lavasoft

Licensing: Free. Make sure you get it from Lavasoft.com or you might get something different that is actually malware


Adobe Reader

Hardly needs mentioning. We all have it and need it because Adobe’s concept of the pdf (portable document format) file has been so successful. Keep it updated for security reasons.

Source: Adobe – but uncheck the box that would otherwise install McAfee Security Scan Plus. Why such a huge and reputable company as Adobe needs to try and foist unwanted and unnecessary software onto you when you download its products is a complete mystery to me. Have these people got no pride?

Licensing: Free. Adobe make their money by selling Adobe Acrobat, which is used to create pdf files (although that situation has become much more complicated now that the format for creating pdf files is open to allcomers – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portable_Document_Format).


Belarc Advisor

Tells you loads about the software you have on your machine, including product keys, etc. This can be an invaluable tool on the day that you need to re-install one or more programs.

Source: Belarc Advisor

Licensing: Free


CCleaner

There are many, many products out there that will promise to clean up your machine of the detritus that Windows programs leave behind. Some are good, some are flakey, and some are actually malware. I avoid them all except CCleaner (which I’ve been using for years). Even with CCleaner, though, I uncheck all the options for checking the registry. This is because I belong to the school of thought that says that potentially breaking the registry is too high a price to pay for the small gain in performance that you might gain by cleaning it.

Source: Piriform CCleaner

Licensing: Just go for the free version. Unlike some software publishers, Piriform won’t bend your arm or deceive you in order to get you to go for the paid version.


This list will be concluded next week.

I recently blogged that the computer market appears to be maturing in that there are fewer innovations in the hardware from year to year. All the bells and whistles that nerdy people used to add to their computers are now all built in and taken for granted. The hardware is still getting faster, but there are fewer new goodies to bolt on.

The software side is different. A shift is taking place in the way we do our computing. More and more of our data is being held for us “in the cloud” (by services such as Skydrive, Dropbox, Evernote). In a lot of cases that same data is also held on the hardware we are using, but we needn’t go into all that now.

Laptops in the cloudsThe huge advantage to storing data in the cloud this way is that it is accessible from many devices – even devices that use different operating systems and different versions of the programs and apps. I currently have Evernote and Dropbox available on my Windows 8 laptop, Windows 7 netbook, Macs, iPad, iPhone and Android phone. It’s all a far cry from the days when I had to remember to make data backups from my laptop and transfer them to the netbook before taking the netbook out with me.

All of this “data mobility” through internet access does have a few downsides, though:

  • My long-held opinion that our online data is not secure against prying eyes has now been well and truly shown to be “jaundiced realism” rather than “paranoia” (I am resisting the urge to use words such as “Told”, “You”, and “So”).
  • You are sometimes stuck if you don’t have an internet connection.
  • And, the point I’ve been trying to build up to, is that the very way we access, view, and interact with our data is constantly at the mercy of whoever is providing the service. I’m not suggesting they are unreliable or badly intentioned but they do have the very annoying habit of changing things without warning.

I think the most obvious way that this is apparent is not, in fact, services such as Evernote (that we access via programs or apps on our own computers and devices), but services where the data and the interface with it are both provided directly via a web browser.

The most obvious of these is our old friend webmail. How often have I heard the cry of anguish that Gmail, or Yahoo, or Hotmail, have changed the user interface again and now it’s impossible to find anything. This often happens without any warning at all and it can feel like an intrusion into our personal space. We get used to doing something in a particular way. Most people don’t want to consciously “engage” with Gmail: they just want to get at their mail without having to think about it or re-learn how to do it.

Bang on cue! When I opened Gmail today to grab a logo for this blog I was presented with this screen telling me it's all changed again.

Bang on cue! When I opened Gmail today to grab a logo for this blog I was presented with this screen telling me it’s all changed again.

Just occasionally I’ve been in the vicinity when clients have given vent to the frustration this can cause. Part of me sympathises with my client, of course, but every now and again I’ve tried to offer a different perspective (tactfully, I hope!):

  • The service suppliers get us to to agree to their terms and conditions before we can use the service. No-one ever reads those terms and conditions because they give us no choices and they are, anyway, utterly incomprehensible to human beings. You can be sure, though, that somewhere in those tems and conditions they have told us that they will make any changes they feel like at any time and that we can like it or lump it.
  • Computer software is still a relatively new, and rapidly changing, technology. Advances can only happen by having change. That may be a truism, but it doesn’t mean it’s not true! We just happen to live in a time of lots of change. Personally, I like that and, to an extent, earn my living from it. Frustration, re-learning, adapting – they’re all part of the change. Hopefully, we can also sometimes experience pleasure, delight, surprise, and even a sense of fun when engaging with this stuff.
  • The other thing I occasionally point out is that the only way we are paying for a lot of this stuff is in the form of giving away our personal data when we use the service. Most of the internet, including webmail, Dropbox, Skydrive, etc, is free at the point of use. That’s astonishing, if you think about it. If any of us could have imagined the internet forty years ago, I’m sure we wouldn’t have also imagined that it would be largely free (which is not to trivialise the cost of giving away our personal data: this is just the wrong blog post for that particular hobby-horse!).

Heraclitus (c 535-475bce), looking as if he's just lost his internet connection

Heraclitus (c 540-480bce), looking as if he’s just lost his internet connection

So, we engage more and more with the internet to store and retrieve our data, to communicate with friends, family, suppliers, manufacturers and Uncle Tom Cobbly. All of this communication happens via “software interfaces” – be those on Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Evernote, Skydrive – or wherever. As the software becomes more powerful and more “feature rich” those interfaces are going to continue to change.

We’ve just got to live with it.

Apparently, it was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who first said “The only constant thing is change” – and that was two and a half thousand years ago, so you’d think we would have got used to the idea by now.

I’ve done it – I’ve committed myself to Evernote for my digital administration

The Evernote logoFollowing on from last week’s blog, I have started using Evernote to improve my digital organisation. It may be a bit premature to start recommending it, but I think I’m ready to take the risk. It’s a very versatile program, but it’s also one that’s very easy to start using. However, the only way you’ll find out if it will work for you is to “suck it and see”. You may have tried programs like this in the past and then abandoned them for no apparent reason. Actually, in my experience, there is probably one or both of two reasons that so-called “productivity programs” fall by the wayside of the electronic superhighway:

  • You don’t use it for long enough for it to become an established part of your routine (so you soon forget all about it and then, when you do remember it, you can’t remember how it works).
  • There is more effort and/or time required in using it than you get back in terms of the benefits of using it. As my mother used to say, “the game isn’t worth the candle”.

Evernote really helps in both these respects because it’s very easy to get started with it and to start organising your data in a way that is meaningful to you. To use some management-speak, the learning curve is very shallow. Thereafter, there are any number of ways that you can make better use of its capabilities.

Shortcomings

I’m very much a beginner with it, so I don’t know all its shortcomings yet. However, if I list the ones that I’ve found so far, then it may just save you from wasting time if these limitations are crucial to you:

  • You can not “print” a document from a program so that it goes directly into the Evernote system. This is not such a problem if you can create a pdf file from the program you are using (either with Adobe Acrobat or from within Word, for instance) as you can create a pdf file in a folder whose contents are automatically imported into Evernote.
  • There isn’t much encryption available. It does require a username and password to open the entire “file”, but, thereafter, there isn’t much choice. It is possible to encrypt a selected piece of text (and this seems to work well enough), but you can’t encrypt (or hide) complete notes or notebooks.
  • Evernote doesn’t deal in “files and folders” as such, so you can’t just copy Evernote notes around your computer as if they were files available to other programs. They can be “exported” to html files but this isn’t the same thing at all.

Benefits

On the other hand, I’ve already found loads of huge “pluses”, such as:

  • You can designate folders on your computer as “import folders” for Evernote. Anything placed in these folders is automatically imported into Evernote as notes (the original files are unaffected). I am using this to store the maps I keep that remind me of the route and journey time to my clients. This will be really useful for clients that I see rarely as I think that punctuality is very important. I am also using it to import copies of my client invoices automatically. Incidentally, both of these import folders are Dropbox folders, so the data was already accessible from all of my computers and devices. I’m expecting, though, that it will be much easier to access it from within Evernote.
  • You can put shortcuts inside notes – eg to launch programs.
  • Paper Filing System

    Would you like to move away from paper filing systems?

  • You can create voice memos (eg from a smartphone) and include tags so that you can identify and store that voice memo (eg by tagging it with a client code). I am trying to get into the habit of creating a voice memo when I leave a client so that there is a record of the visit. Evernote allows me to do this “on the hoof” with my iPhone such that I don’t need to do any subsequent filing or labelling or anything at all. The memo will just be there if I need it. I will be able to identify it by its tag (client code) and its date and time.
  • When I started with Evernote it seemed as if the “notebooks” were just a “flat” structure. In other words, it seems at first sight as if all notebooks are independent of each other. This could start getting out of hand if there are, say, dozens of them. However, I then discovered what Evernote calls “stacks” (stacks of notebooks). The result is like nesting folders within folders. So, you could have a stack called “Clients” and have notebooks inside it called “Invoices”, “Pending”, “Finished Work”, “Contact Details” etc.
  • You can send emails directly into your Evernote system and automatically file them in the right notebook and with relevant tags.
  • You can send web pages or clips of web pages directly into your Evernote system and, again, specify the notebook and any relevant tags.
  • There are comprehensive search facilities.
  • Evernote supports Windows, Mac OSX, Apple IOS, Android, and Blackberry.

Evernote ItemsI was so impressed within the first few days of using it that I bought the premium version (actually, it’s a subscription – £35pa), so now my mobile devices can store a local copy of the data and the data upload limit goes up from 60mb per month in the free version to 1gb.

I don’t care if I do sound sad for enthusing over a data organising system. This might just be the closest thing yet to having all my work data organised from one place. And that’s important in helping me to provide an efficient service to my computer clients – and it may just be important to you, too.

“Recommended”, “Maybe”, and “Time for Something New”

Anyjunk

Not so long ago, I blogged about the pile of redundant and knackered stuff that has been sitting in my flat for months. I stopped driving many years ago, so I couldn’t just take this to the nearest proper place myself, and I didn’t want to presume on friendships to get it done. So I had to find a commercial solution. Well, it’s done and I’m happy to recommend the company – Anyjunk – who took it all away. They charge by volume, with the minimum being 1 cubic yard (but, no, they don’t charge in groats or £sd). They gave an estimate over the phone and we agreed a final price when they arrived.

AnyJunk logoThe final pile was a bit smaller than the one featured in my blog a few weeks ago, but it’s still a reasonable guide as to their prices. The total cost was £120. The two guys who took it away were friendly, efficent, and didn’t huff and puff about climbing up and down 53 steep stairs several times. So, Anyjunk might work out too expensive for just a few items, but if you’ve got a load to get rid of, then have a look at their website.

AVG Mis-direction

The AVG logoI used to recommend AVG Free antivirus software, but became too embarrassed at the number of my clients who fell into the many traps set by AVG to “encourage” their users to trade up from the free version to the paid one. Well, I know they’ve got a lot better, but they’re still not completely squeaky clean. I have AVG Free on my netbook and the box displayed here in Figure 1 popped up today.

AVG Program Update - figure 1

Figure 1 – AVG tell me they need to update my free program

“Here we go again”, I thought, “I’m ready for you this time, watching your every step”. So, I clicked the “update now” button. Then up pops Figure 2. I won’t go banging on again about all the nice friendly green ticks in the column they want you to go for. Suffice to say that they have put a little dot against “Ultimate Protection” at the bottom of this column. If you just click the “Next” button then you will install a trial version of the paid product. In order to update your Free product to the latest version of the Free product, click on the dot inside the red elipse I’ve put on Figure 2 and then click the “Next” button.

AVG Program Update - figure 2

Figure 2 – you must click the button in my red elipse if you want to update your existing, free, program.

Then all will be well. In fairness to AVG, they have definitely made things simpler than before. There is now only this one trap you can fall into, and if you do accidentally install a trial copy of the paid version then uninstalling it (using the standard Windows method) will prompt AVG to offer to install the free product you wanted all the time. Sharp as knives, aren’t they? Let’s hope they stay as good at antivirus protection.

Microsoft OneNote vs Evernote

Why don’t Microsoft make much fuss about their note-taking/organising software, OneNote, that is part of all the Office versions? Perhaps they don’t think very much of it. I’ve finally given up on it altogether. It’s just too tedious and idiosyncratic in how it organises the blocks of text on a page. That may sound like a minor gripe. If you think so, I challenge you to try it. It’s infuriating.

The Evernote logoSo, I have had another look at Evernote. This seems to be the only other serious program around for organising all the disparate parts of your digital life. Everything from note-taking, to picture embedding, to voice-notes, web pages. I’m sure I haven’t yet found just how much it will do, but I’m delighted by what I keep finding and I’m writing this blog on my Windows 8 PC using it now. If I want to look really cool, I can take my iPad Mini (with its Logitech keyboard, of course) and do some more work on the blog somewhere more public than my own flat.

That’s because it’ll work on all devices and the data is in the cloud, so I can get at it anywhere that my iPad has either a 3G or WiFi connection. I was initially put off Evernote as I thought it was “cloud only”. Not true: I am confident that I have a backup on my PC in a place of my choosing. I am contemplating taking out a subscription so that I can also work on my iPad or iPhone when no internet connection is available. That will also remove the ads that are (not unreasonably) earning Evernote a few bob in the free version. I’d prefer a “one time purchase”, but the main offering is the ongoing use of their servers to store the data and make it available on all devices, so I can’t blame them for preferring the subscription option.

… and Evernote has a “word count” option that tells me I’ve written 872 words (before revisions), so now I can go out to play.

Keyboards aren’t necessarily the best way to talk to computers

City of London Dragon

What’s a City of London dragon got to do with it? Read on…

.. and that is why the mouse was developed. The invention of the mouse actually took place in the 1960’s (see this link, for instance, on the invention of the computer mouse), but it became widespread with the introduction into personal computing of the “Graphical user interface (GUI)” in Macs and then Windows in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Prior to then, communication into the computer was generally by keyboard. Even earlier, and stretching back into the mists of my own student days, data input was achieved by feeding punched cards into the computer. The position of the holes in the cards represented the data contained on the card. For the average, modern user, though, we had the keyboard and then we had the mouse. And now, particularly with the advent of tablets and smartphones, we also have touch-screens with their flourishes of touching and swiping and tapping.

However, none of the developments since the keyboard has helped us much when it comes to inputting a large amount of text (apart from OCR – the business of capturing an image of text using a scanner, and then attempting to turn that input into editable text).

Suppose you are writing a book or a thesis
. The normal thing to do would be to type it in using a standard word processing program. This is ok if your typing skills are at least good enough that the process of typing does not interfere with any creative process that needs to take place at the same time. Obviously, you could use a different method, such as getting the creative stuff down longhand and then transcribing it to computer later, but that may double the effort of recording. Similarly, you could talk into a voice recorder for later transcription by yourself or an amanuensis. But maybe you can’t afford one.

Dragon on Holborn Viaduct

This one’s on Holborn Viaduct

So, it’s long been thought that it would be a really good idea if we could just talk directly to the computer and it could, in effect, do the typing for us. For that matter, why couldn’t it take orders in the same way? Instead of clicking on an option or typing a shortcut, why not just say “print the current page”?

Well, we can
. The software has been around for years. I know: I’ve bought at least two versions over the years – and yet I don’t use it.

Why not?
Doesn’t it work? Well, yes, it does work up to a point, but the main problem is that it takes quite an investment of time before it starts paying off. Like many people, I just haven’t had the patience.

You have to start by training your “speech recognition” software to understand what you are saying and what you really want it to do. It seems to me that the difficulties are twofold:

  • The time you need to spend formerly “training” the software.
  • The time you need to spend training it “on the job”. This is when it’s very easy to say “blow this for a game of soldiers, it’s quicker to do it the old way.”

So why would you bother attempting it? There are several reasons why it might be worth persevering:

  • You do a lot of typing, so it would be worth the effort of learning a method that is better in the long run.
  • You think your “creative process” might be helped by removing the obstacle of picking your way around a keyboard letter by letter.
  • You have a physical problem, such as arthritis, that makes it difficult to use a mouse and/or a keyboard.
  • You need to keep up with your clients (that’s me!)

As time goes by, the software gets better so the “cost” in terms of the effort to train it is reduced. Also, as hardware gets faster and more powerful, it can better handle the demands of speech recognition software. So, having written this blog post, I’ve now convinced myself that it’s time I had another go. I’m very hopeful that the last software I bought (two or three years ago) will work on my Windows 8 machine.

Dragon Naturally Speaking Pack ShotIf you, too, are thinking of having a go, then have a look at Dragon Naturally Speaking 12 from Nuance. I think it’s the de facto standard now. Your computer does need to have a microphone and speakers. Almost all modern computers of all types have speakers, but if you’ve got a desktop computer then you may need to buy a microphone. Microphones are almost always built into laptops of all types and sizes.

Windows Options – Dragon Home (£79.99) or Dragon Premium (£149.99)
Mac – Dragon Dictate 3 (£129.99)

These prices include VAT but do not include a shipping cost of about £6 if buying from the Nuance website.

I have more than one client (well, two actually) who have mastered Dragon (neither of whom are called George) and have incorporated it into their working routine, and another one who’s gearing up to start soon. If you are thinking of doing likewise then I would say that I think the technology is up to it now, but you must still expect a bit of a learning curve.

Now, where is my master disc and will it run on Windows 8?

Since I bought my Sony Tablet S I’ve been trying to consolidate all the different bits of software I use so that as much as possible is available on both my main Windows 7 laptop and on the Android tablet. “Android“, by the way, is the operating system on the Tablet. In other words, it does the job that Windows does on most computers. It was specially designed for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet PCs where the screen is typically much smaller than that on a PC and where there is likely to be no physical keyboard.

So, if you want to move smoothly between a laptop and a mobile device with the same data and functionality available on each device then you have to consider:

  • Whether there is an identical or similar program available on both devices.
  • Whether these programs access the same data files so that you don’t have to worry about trying to reconcile different versions of your data.

As I said in my earlier blog on Tablet PCs, I am new to Android and I’m pleased and surprised at how good it is with these considerations. I haven’t got it all sorted out yet and some requirements are easier to satisfy than others, but so far I am encouraged and I think it is very possible for users with the typical needs and skills of my own computer support clients to get value from a smart mobile device. Some people may need some help to get started, but once things are set up they seem stable and user-friendly (Android devices, that is, not my computer clients – whose stability and user-friendliness is beyond doubt).

So, as part of that quest to get my main work needs met on a Tablet PC I went looking for a modern “Task Manager” (or “To-Do-List Manager”) that I could access from a Windows PC or Android Tablet.

ToodleDo logoI came across ToodleDo and certainly think it’s worth looking at. It works as follows:

  • It is web-based. You access it through a web browser (such as Internet Explorer or Firefox).
  • Your data (tasks, reminders etc) are held by ToodleDo on their servers.
  • Consequently, your data is available from any computer that can access the internet. It could be a Windows PC, a Mac, a Tablet PC, a smartphone.

This “model” or “arrangement” of working through a web browser is becoming more and more popular. You’ve probably heard the term “Cloud Computing” and this is it. You don’t install a program onto your own computer, you don’t have to back up your data (if you trust whoever is hosting your data to do it properly), and you don’t have to copy or reconcile different data files between different devices. It’s not really new, of course: web-based email programs such as Hotmail have worked this way for years. But it’s now becoming more and more popular for other types of programs and one of the reasons for the growing popularity is this need to have the same data available on lots of different devices.

There can be disadvantages to this approach:

  • You may need to have a working internet connection to be able to access your data (but some programs allow downloading of your data onto your own computer so as to make it available “offline” – ie available even when there is no internet connection).
  • You may be concerned about the privacy and security of your data as it’s online (“in the cloud”) and outside your own control.
  • Web-based programs are often slower, have fewer features, and are generally less pleasant to use than the equivalent “local” program would be.

A ToodleDo Screen

A ToodleDo Screen - click on image to enlarge it.

Despite the disadvantages, you don’t have to have lots of different devices to make it worth using cloud-based programs such as ToodleDo. There’s no reason at all why you can’t use it on your one and only PC. Some of the things I like about it so far are:

  • It’s free (there’s a “Pro” version available that has an annual subscription fee).
  • There are lots of ways of classifying, sorting, and prioritising tasks.
  • It’s easy to use.
  • You can receive a daily email listing the most important tasks for the day.
  • You can create tasks/reminders just by sending an email to a special email address linked to your account. This is useful for creating tasks as soon as you think of them, but it also means you can forward an incoming email to this special address so that it’s on your “to do” list.
  • There’s a data backup/restore feature (but not, as far as I know, a method for working “offline”).

So, whether or not you use more than one computer, if you are looking for a Task Manager I recommend looking at ToodleDo. And if you are thinking you may want to be using a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet in the future then I would definitely recommend bearing that fact in mind when choosing any new program or way of working.

A lot of business users and home computer users automatically turn to Microsoft Word every time they want to create text that needs to be saved. Word is a great fully-featured “word processing package” but using it often seems like using a sledge-hammer to crack a walnut, and it doesn’t necessarily offer a good solution in terms of organising snippets of information and finding them again in a hurry. Indeed, a lot of people would argue that Word has now become too clever and complicated for its own good, confusing average users with a plethora of options while not answering the real-world needs of data storage and retrieval.

Think, for example, of wanting to record notes about household things such as car maintenance records, or recipes, or anything else where you want to record information that you might just need to find again in the future. It seems to me that the trick is to make it as easy as possible to do the recording while, at the same time, making it as easy as possible to find something in, say, a year’s time.

Let’s take this a bit further by adding the possibility of including images (including screen captures), links to web pages, and links to files on your own computer. What we are beginning to see now is not just a program for recording text but an entire “information management system”.

Microsoft does have its own program for this kind of need. It’s called OneNote and it’s included in Microsoft Office packages. However, in all the years that I’ve been providing computer support in London I have never heard a single client mention it. I’ve been testing it for myself for the last three months or so. If I decide it’s worth using I’ll write a blog post on it, but I have to say that so far I’m finding it a bit irritating and possibly resource-hungry. On the other hand, it does seem quite powerful and useful.

In the meantime, the program I use for this kind of thing is one called “Treepad”. Indeed, I write these blog posts using Treepad and then copy and paste them onto my website. The reasons for using Treepad in this context are:

  • I can concentrate on creating the text without worrying about formatting etc.
  • I can easily drop images into the text that I might want to include in the blog post.

I also use Treepad for all kinds of computer technical notes that I may never need again or that I might just need one day. I have found that the really important thing is that the effort of writing down and saving information like this is only repaid if it’s easy to find it again. That also means that it has to be easy to do the recording. Treepad is excellent in these respects.

Treepad - showing the tree and part of an article

Figure 1 - Treepad - showing the tree structure on the left and part of an article (the contents of a node) on the right

Treepad is basically a text manager that allows you to organise content in a “tree structure”. On the left of the screen is the structure, and on the right is the content of the particular “node” that is currently selected. Nodes can be “nested” inside nodes in much the same way that Windows organises folders within folders (see Figure 1). By the by, you can see from the top of Figure 1 that I keep my Treepad files in my Dropbox folder so that they are always available on all my computers – see my blog about Dropbox.

But it is not only text that can entered into a node. We can also paste images, hyperlinks to programs or data files on the same computer, hyperlinks to websites, and links to other nodes in the same Treepad data file. It’s very easy to use and it’s powerful.

The only major gripe that I have with Treepad is that there is no inbuilt “tagging”. By that, I mean the ability to define each node as belonging to one or several user-defined “definitions” or “groups”. For instance, I might want to tag the content of nodes with “computer support London” or “silver surfer pc training” or “one-to-one computer training” or “blog ideas” so that all nodes with one or more specific tags can be selected easily. This is not absolutely critical, though, as there is a search routine, so I try to remember to add the words that I would like to treat as tags to the top line of the content of nodes. If I then search for a specific word it will list all nodes that include that word.

Treepad search results

Figure 2 - Treepad Search Results

Figure 2 shows the results of searching my Treepad file for “AVG”:

I can then click on any selected node to see it in its entirety.

Treepad is available in several versions. There is a free version so it costs nothing except a bit of time to give it a try. If you are the sort of person who is forever mislaying bits of information that you think should be easily accessible on your computer then it could pay you to have a look at it. I’ve been using the “Business” version for several years.

I started looking at Microsoft’s OneNote because it appears to be a more sophisticated program (you can scan documents directly into OneNote for instance), but I find its text handling a bit, shall we say, idiosyncratic (ie annoying) so I don’t know yet whether I would recommend it. Treepad is beginning to look a bit long in the tooth but it’s easy to use and repays the minimal effort required to use it.

I’m going to have a look at how good Treepad might be as a password manager program as I know that most of my IT clients do not have a simple, effective, consistent way of storing these and could do with a bit of well-aimed computer advice on the subject. Watch this space….

Remote Support may be suitable for this topic

Many people have Microsoft Office but have never used the spreadsheet application (Excel) that is part of it. Every now and again someone asks me what a spreadsheet is, so I’d like to give an overview. This is not a tutorial for financial or computer geeks: it’s just to give you an idea of whether you think spreadsheets could be worth investigating further.

A spreadsheet is a computer application that stores and calculates text and figures on documents that are like sheets of paper divided into rows and columns. These “sheets of paper” can then be saved in much the same way as Word documents.

Excel spreadsheet example with data

Excel Spreadsheet - figure 1

Each row and each column of the spreadsheet is labelled (with letters for columns and numbers for rows). Therefore, each individual box formed by the conjunction of a row and a column (called a cell) will have its own unique address – eg C2 or F19. Rows go down the page and columns go across the page.

Looking at Figure 1:-

  • The cell that is labelled C2 contains a piece of text (“Year 1”). It is actually possible to perform calculations on pieces of text but in most cases – as here – the text in the cell C2 simply labels the data that appears below it.
  • The cell C3 has a number in it (200), as do the rows below it.
  • The cell C7 contains a calculation. In this case, the calculation tells the spreadsheet to add up the contents of the cells in the rows above and to place the answer in the cell C7. The actual calculation placed in the cell in this case is “=sum(C3:C6)”.
  • The calculation in cell E3 tells the spreadsheet to subtract the contents of C3 from the contents of D3. The actual calculation is “C3-D3”.

For the sake of clarity I have colour-coded the cells in this example. Blue cells are text, orange cells are numbers, green cells are calculations. We enter text, numbers and dates just by typing in the data. To enter a calculation we begin by typing the “=” sign and then enter the formula.

Now, the beauty of spreadsheets is that having created this structure we can change any of the data and all of the formulae will be re-calculated immediately. So, for example, if we change the 200 in C3 to 500, then the totals immediately change as highlighted in yellow in figure 2 below:

Excel spreadsheet example with changed data

Excel Spreadsheet - figure 2

This means that we can create a structure that we want to use time and time again but only have to create that structure once. So, I might create the following structure (figure 3) and save it with the name of “expenditure template”:

Excel spreadsheet example with of template

Excel Spreadsheet - figure 3

This template has the text and calculations in place but no actual figures. When I want to put in figures I open this spreadsheet, enter my figures, and then save it with a different name (using the “save as” command) so that I still have my empty template available to repeat the process in the future and also have a saved copy of the spreadsheets that include my figures. I can, of course, do this as often as necessary (eg monthly).

Spreadsheets can range from the very simple to the enormously complicated. The calculations I showed above include just the instruction (known as a function) to “SUM” (ie “add”) the contents of some specified cells, and the simple arithmetic operation of substracting the contents of one cell from another. There are many in-built functions and operators that can handle, for instance, date arithmetic, statistical functions, logical comparisons etc, but you don’t need to be intimidated by all this power. It is fairly simple to grasp enough of the concepts and techniques to handle most daily requirements.

Something it’s difficult to appreciate in this static article is that it is easier to create the structure and the calculations than you might think at first. This is mainly for three reasons:

  • We can select the cells we wish to include in the calculation by “pointing” at them rather than manually typing in the cell co-ordinates.
  • Once we have created an initial calculation we can “copy” that calculation to other rows or columns where that makes sense. For instance, having created the calculation in E3 (where the calculation is “D3-C3”) we can just copy that calculation down to the next four rows. The program will automatically adjust the cell references (eg “D4-C4”, “D5-C5” etc) as it makes the copies.
  • Rows and cells can be inserted and deleted and the contents can be moved around as well as copied. The spreadsheet will automatically make changes in the calculations to adjust for these changes. This means that the design process can be very fluid: we don’t have to get it right first time.

A slightly different use of spreadsheets is to keep a kind of “database” of information (although I hesitate to use the word database as that has a more specifc meaning in computer terms). For instance, you could have a list of names, addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses etc in which each record (each person) is contained on one row and each different piece of information is in a different column (eg name, landline number, mobile number). This kind of list also has the advantage that in a modern spreadsheet application such as Excel, email addresses and website addresses are automatically recognised as links so you can click on them to create emails or go directly to websites (actually, the email part of that statement won’t work if you only have webmail on your computer).

Some of the different spreadsheets that I have cover the following uses:

  • Comparing budget (or target) figures with actual figures.
  • Comparing expenditure between different time periods.
  • Keeping simple lists of items with values and their totals.
  • Analysing the results of Google AdWords advertising.
  • Computer support logs.
  • Costings.
  • Price lists.
  • Sales figures.

Some of these spreadsheets are “one-offs” that help with specific individual projects and others are repeated on a regular basis, with the structure evolving over time.

If you have requirements that you think could be helped by using the Excel spreadsheet program just give me a call. I can offer 1:1 basic computer training so that you can then develop your own spreadsheets and/or help with developing specific spreadsheet structures.

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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