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Two Tools to Improve Your Productivity

We’re always trying to get our applications running at peak performance. What are you doing to maximize your own performance of everyday tasks?

For me, it boils down to two key products.

Speech-to-Text that Actually Works

I spend the bulk of my day writing and/or editing the work of others. That’s a lot of time spent in Word. If I’m not working in Word, I’m composing text in another form: e-mail or instant messages.

I’m a good typist -- I can crank out 80 or 90 words a minute without breaking a sweat. I’ve used Word macros, Excel macros, and I count on DataPrompter when I have repetitive documents to create (where I only need to change a few words before creating the next version), and Macro Express when I have more complex tasks (it allows me to write sophisticated macros with conditional branching, for example, across multiple applications).

When I need to create original text, these days I depend on Nuance’s Dragon Naturally Speaking (DNS). I tried a similar product many, many years ago -- back in the days when Microsoft was touting its speech recognition features. (It was mediocre, inaccurate, and clumsy.) Yes, DNS requires a short training session (less than 20 minutes). Consider it an investment that will pay you back handsomely.

As you speak your words into a microphone, the program displays them in an open window (Word, Notepad, Outlook, fields in a form, cells in Excel, you name it), usually after you pause. In Word, it shows a full sentence at a time, because that’s when I usually stop for a breath. You can “speak” punctuation (“comma”) or navigation (“new line”) easily. If you make a mistake, just back and up and speak what you mean. If Dragon misinterprets what you’ve said, a simple “Correct that” spoken command presents a list of alternative text.

(When you exit DNS, the program asks if you want it to update its logic based on the corrections you’ve made.) The longer you work with it, the fewer corrections are necessary, but out of the box, its accuracy is amazing.

Just like there are times when I am tongue-tied, sometimes I find that despite my best intentions, I occasionally stumble when I type. No matter what I think I type, it comes out with letters transposed or the wrong word (I think “their” and type “they’re”.) I’m more often tripping over fumbling fingers than tripping over my tongue, however.

The beauty of Dragon Naturally Speaking is that it doesn’t have such problems; it never has a bad day, either. Furthermore, I don’t have to think about those frequently pondered-over words (it is conscience or conscious?) -- the program figures out the right word from its context. Finally, DNS cuts way down on misspellings -- no more “hte" typed in haste in an application lacking AutoCorrect.

In addition to converting speech to text quickly, it helps me think more clearly. I can speak a sentence faster than I can type it, and DNS gets the words into Word faster than I can type them. I can work at the speed of thought -- well, the speed of speech, at least. It always seems to be able to keep up.

There are few speech-to-text applications that work. Google Phone offers translations of voice mail into text messages. It’s a disaster, in my experience. I get nothing but garbage. Dragon Naturally Speaking lives up to its name -- it lets me speak naturally, get higher text throughput, and makes it easier to dictate than type. I can’t see myself going back to keyboard-only entry.

RoboForm Overcomes My Bad Memory

If I’m doing research, I have to visit many Web sites. Unfortunately, to get much of the information I truly need, I have to register at each of the sites. Following advice I’ve read repeatedly (and which makes sense), I vary my UserID and password so no two sites have the same login information. Some sites require letters and numbers, some demand that passwords must be at least 8 characters, and so on. For me, there’s no such thing as a “standard” password, anyway, and if I were to use the same letter/number combo on multiple sites, once that password (or pattern) is discovered, hackers could use that knowledge to, say, drain my bank account online.

Of course, I have better things to do in my life than memorize all these different passwords, and no information is secure if it’s written on a Post-It note affixed to your monitor. Thankfully, I don’t have to.

RoboForm remembers all the messy details for me. Yes, later versions of Firefox can memorize these IDs; Norton Internet Security Suite has a similar feature. Trouble is, there simply not as simple as RoboForm. In addition, if you rely on a browser to remember your passwords, you can only use those passwords in that same browser, whereas you can use your RoboForm passwords in any browser. (Once I set up information for a site, it’s there whether I’m using Firefox or IE.)

RoboForm does more than remember user ID, password, and URL. If there’s information that’s required (I never reveal the actual name of my first pet), RoboForm can keep that, too. If you are an active online shopper, forget entering your mailing address and different delivery address -- RoboForm can fill in the details quickly.

When you visit a new site, RoboForm is smart enough to know when you’ve entered information for the first time and offers to save it for you.

If you login with more than one set of credentials (I have two distinct LinkedIn accounts, for example), that’s no problem. You can keep multiple sets for the same site, choose a default, and RoboForm will prompt you to choose when you visit the site. The program also keeps track of the sites you’ve defined; rather than clutter your desktop with shortcuts, you can pick the site (with automatic userID/password fill-in) from a list of URLs using RoboForm’s toolbar.

Keeping passwords secure can be enhanced by creating a “master” password that protects all your information. Think of it as the password to access your other passwords.

There are many other nice-to-have features. You can print a list of all the sites and credentials for each; I find that helpful when I want to review just what, exactly, it’s stored (especially if I want to have that list for accessing a site from a new location or system) or just as a printed backup to put in a locked drawer. (RoboForm Everywhere is an online service that lets you synchronize your information with multiple computers and mobile devices and have one-click access remotely, but I haven’t tried that feature.)

In addition to running on many platforms, there are several versions of the product, including an enterprise version. You owe it to yourself to clear your head of all your passwords. Forget lists of userIDs and passwords. Let RoboForm do the mental gymnastics.

Posted by Jim Powell on 08/10/2011 at 11:53 AM