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How Can You Use Your Computer More Effectively?

editorial by David M. Switzer

Unless you've already retired or you're going to become a hermit it's highly likely that you will be using a computer in your life.

The world of computers has moved very quickly and will continue to do so. For example, 10 years ago hardly anyone had heard of the internet and now millions of people are using it, including most people I know.

Because of this rapid change, learning how to use certain applications is not the most important thing to do -- the applications that you learn now are not going to necessarily be the ones you use later, and applications always change too. What's most important to learn is underlying concepts and techniques. You have to be able to learn new things -- to apply your knowledge of one application to another. So memorizing certain things is only going to get you to a certain point -- what'll get you farther is understanding how things work.

One thing that worries people is when they're presented with a new application that they have to learn, or even a new feature in an application that they know. I'm going to give you some strategies for learning new things on a computer.

Use the help menu. It's typically the right-most menu, and you should check it out when you're learning a new application. You shouldn't read through the whole thing -- that would be boring, and you wouldn't remember it all anyway. But you should read any introductory topics and look around to see what's there. And when you need to find something later, remember that the help menu is there to help you. It's true that sometimes the help menu isn't as helpful as it could be, but if you get used to reading the kind of material that's there it's going to help you more. Applications often come with an introductory tutorial, which can be very helpful too.

Look for shortcuts. In any application you're using these days there should be shortcuts to the common actions you perform. The shortcuts will just let you do these actions a bit quicker. A key sequence (holding down two or three keys together) or clicking on a button is faster than going to a menu and selecting some item, as long as you know what the shortcut is. In an application that you use frequently it won't take long to get to know the shortcuts. In some applications you can even create your own shortcuts (for example, see Tools -> Customize in Microsoft Word).

Click on things to see what they do. Some people are afraid of breaking the application, but don't be. In any application you're using you should be able to do a lot of things by clicking, double-clicking, or dragging the mouse. Do some experimenting to see what happens.

Remember where you see things are in case you need them later. Let's say you're using a particular dialog box. Instead of just focusing on the part that you're using right now, look around and see what else is there. That way you can keep it in the back of your mind for later when you might need it. Of course, you're not going to remember everything but this can give you an idea of what's in the application -- and you can always look things up in the help.

Create a small document just to play around with. Instead of starting with an important document, create a document to experiment with. That way you don't have to be afraid of breaking something.

Save a copy of the files you create. If you use the previous strategy and add some comments to remind yourself what you were doing, you can save the documents for later use. You'll remember the things you learned for some time while you're using that application, but if you don't use it for a while you'll forget. If you then have to use it again, it'll be more efficient to look at what you did the first time rather than do it all over again.

Everyone knows you often encounter problems on a computer. Why is that? Computers are more sophisticated devices -- they can do more things -- than other machines (like your microwave or your TV) and so there are more possible problems that could occur. When you encounter a problem, you should first read the error message if there is one. Sometimes the error message is cryptic, but sometimes it actually tells you some useful information. The next thing to do is figure out what could possibly be the cause of the problem. Then check each of those possible causes (maybe starting with the one that's most likely) to see which one is the actual cause.

Memorizing where things are in an application is not the most efficient plan, because as I said at the beginning -- things change. Obviously if you use an application a lot you're going to remember where the common things are. But when you're learning a new application a more efficient plan is to figure out what kind of things are in the different areas of the application. For example, each of the menus should have a theme. If you figure out what the theme is, then you don't have to memorize each item in the menu -- if you're looking for an item you'll know where to find it.

These strategies I've mentioned take some effort -- but the effort you put in now using them will pay off later when you use applications more efficiently. Following are some more things that may help you use your computer more effectively, depending on what you use your computer for.

Organize your files. At some point you're going to look for something and you're going to have a lot of files. Depending on whether or not your files are organized, it will either be easy or hard to find what you're looking for. Name your files with meaningful file names -- luckily the days of 8-character file names are over, and you can use reasonable names that you can later recognize. Store files that belong together in a separate folder/directory, rather than putting all your files in the same place.

Do you know why the keys on a standard "Qwerty" keyboard are in the order they're in? They were designed that way back in the typewriter era to slow you down -- so that people who typed really fast on a typewriter wouldn't jam the keys together. There's a "Dvorak" layout that is easier to learn, more comfortable, and allows you to type faster. (See Introducing the Dvorak Keyboard.)

The web has lots of garbage on it but it also has lots of good stuff -- you just have to know how to find it. Search engines typically allow you to search by topic or keywords. One thing to keep in mind is that no one search engine knows about all the web pages in the world. Different search engines also do their searches in different ways. So depending on what kind of information you're looking for, one search engine could be much more helpful than another. (See Web Searching Tips.)

If you have a question that needs answered and no one can answer it, you can probably find a web site or newsgroup that's relevant. Newsgroups are places you can go and look at messages from different people all on the same topic (like a mailing list except the messages are stored in one place rather than mailed to you). There are newsgroups devoted to just about any topic imaginable. Check the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) and if your question isn't answered there, ask it on the newsgroup. If you're in the right place you'll often get several answers within a few hours. (See Google Groups.)

If you're using your computer to do desktop publishing, or you've created a web page, or you're doing any kind of design with text, I recommend The Non-Designer's Design Book by Robin Williams. The book gives you concrete rules about how to make a good design. Of course, once you know what you're doing you can break the rules.

If you want to learn the mechanics of how to create a web page, there are lots of books and web sites that can help you. One book that's good is Learning Web Design by Jennifer Niederst.

If all you've learned about on the computer is applications, you might consider learning a bit about programming. It can be useful even if you're never going to become a programmer. Knowing a bit about programming gives you an idea of why things work the way they do in the applications that you use. Knowing a bit about programming also helps you do fancier things in many applications and also on your web page. You might start with The Philosophical Programmer by Daniel Kohanski, which discusses various topics to do with programming in layman's terms.

Thanks to Professors John Beatty and Arnie Dyck at the University of Waterloo.

By day Dave Switzer is a mild-mannered instructor of computer science. By night he's a wild and crazy editor of science fiction and fantasy. If you're looking for more short fiction, he recommends Virtual Unrealities by Alfred Bester, Masterpieces edited by Orson Scott Card, Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, The Bakka Anthology edited by Kristen Pederson Chew (which you probably can't get but maybe somebody will reprint it), and The Perseids and Other Stories by Robert Charles Wilson. He also recommends all collections by Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Arthur C. Clarke, and Frank Herbert.

Cover artist John Hancock is an award-winning newspaper artist. He has worked for such papers as The Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press and the Dayton Daily News. He is also an aspiring writer and his short story "Pepe the club-footed elephant" was recently published in Bewildering Stories e-zine. The most important thing you could say about him is he is the proudest father of a four-year old boy that ever lived.

Last modified: July 26, 2009

Copyright © 2003 David M. Switzer

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