Friday, 4 July 2008

Many Ways to Skin a Cat

Today's operating systems offer many different ways of achieving the same thing. To open a recent Word document, you could find it in the recent documents menu, open Word and find it on the recent files list, open Word and use the open file menu option and navigate to the file, you could find the file in Explorer and open it from there, or you could open the file from any other shortcut that you have set up.

A few years ago, I found that the "many ways to skin a cat" approach made it difficult to teach people to use a computer (particularly when I was teaching my parents). They were keen to learn, and though I tried to be consistent when trying to teach them, I would often accidentally use an alternative method to open a file and end up confusing them.

Now, however, I have come to the conclusion that the different ways of achieving your goal enable you to be more efficient at what you are doing.

If I have accessed a file recently, then chances are good that I will want to use it again. So I have a recent documents menu on the start menu. Now the recent documents menu might keep the file long enough to serve its purpose, but other, more recently used files will inevitably demote the file until it no longer appears on the recent documents menu. If I still need a file after it has been bumped off the recent documents menu, it might still be in the recent files menu of the application that it's accessed in. If it gets bumped off of that menu, then I'll set up a shortcut to it.

Now I try to keep a tidy computer, because it keeps my computer use efficient. I try to keep my desktop as clear as possible. I'll use the desktop as a temporary storage bin - an inbox, but I'll try to clear it out as soon as possible.

The reason is, items tend to gather on a desktop in no particular order. Even if the desktop is arranged in such a way that you remember what went where, an accidental sorting of the icons, or a resolution change moves the icons out of place, your spatial memory is no longer accurate, and the shortcuts are no longer as efficient as they were.

So, as you may have gathered I won't keep my shortcut on the desktop. If I have the screen real-estate, I will have up to two toolbars on the taskbar to contain my shortcuts - the quick launch toolbar for shortcuts to programs and individual files, and, if I have the space, a "folders" toolbar which contains shortcuts to the folders that I access most frequently. (If I don't have the space for two toolbars, I'll keep everything in the quick launch toolbar). Each of these toolbars will contain a hierarchy, so as not to have massive, sprawling lists to wade through.

These toolbars usually end up containing the files and folders I access 99% of the time. I'll occasionally have a quick spring clean and delete anything that has become obsolete, but usually the hierarchy keeps things getting too messy.

Next post I'll talk about customization in general.

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