In defence of inefficiency

In years gone by the definition of a “power user” has subtly altered as more and more people not only own more and more computers, but become more familiar with how they operate, and more competent at actually doing the things that we have been told for years they will help us to do.

It’s a phrase I have never particularly liked, and one that is increasingly unhelpful when it comes down to assessing the relative skills of a user. It’s also largely only ever used by people who already consider themselves to be “power users”, which immediately skews the meaning somewhat and somehow makes it self serving. My brother understands cars more than I ever will, can fix them up, describe their inner workings and drive them faster and likely more safely than me. He’s not a power driver though, that would be ridiculous.

When I first started messing with computers properly, and certainly when I started to do it professionally (and that is another term that I have beef with) I considered myself a power user, and if asked for a definition of that phrase I would probably have suggested that it would describe someone who knows how a computer and it’s operating system combine with application software (there were no Apps back then!) to allow you to achieve some end result, and that the power user would understand the whole end to end process sufficiently to be able to not just know what to do, but understand why you are doing it. And in extension of this, should said power user need to do something for the first time, they should be able to work it out from first principles without having to be taught the new actions required or refer to any manual etc. That’s very wordy, but there is no simple soundbite phrase that covers all the elements in a nicer way that I can think of.

In short, a power user was a someone who knew how their computer worked, and was able to use it to achieve tasks that they might not have been taught to do by anyone else because, like maths, once you understand the concepts you have no need of learning times tables to infinity by rote any more.

These days most people with a computer could probably fit that description at least up to a point. A combination of improved usability and capabilities of the whole computing eco system, along with the prevalence of computers in everyday environments (these days you are a minority case if you do not have at least one computer of some description with some form of internet connectivity in your household or workplace) means that today my retired mother can probably do more on her first Macbook that I could have done with my first PC, even with limited tuition or training.

But of course, those of us who live and breathe computers, whether for fun or for money, have the need to set ourselves apart from the regular Joes, and the way in which we do this has changed over the years. Previously, we could just do more. Now thanks to technological progress we can all do the same, so we need to find a new differentiator. So we’re going to have to do the same, but faster.

Santa’s little helper

Say hello to a whole host of tools to help me, the power user, stand out from the regular crowd by using a suite of applications and services that allow me to do things differently to my dear Mum. I’m looking at you TextExpander, and you Launchbar, Keyboard Maestro, FastScripts and so on. If you’ve even heard of these programs, much less used them, you are probably entering power user land.

Using everyday actions like starting a program from it’s dock icon, using the built in keyboard shortcuts where available etc are all out of the window. It’s not enough to be able to do what we need, we need to do it faster, with less key presses, and we certainly do not want to take our hands off the keyboard to go near the mouse unless it is strictly necessary.

I have to say, I don’t use any of these tools. It’s not that I am dismissive of them, but I could never fit them into my way or working. And I think I just worked out why. It’s not that I am incapable of first of all knowing that such tools exist, and then learning a) how to use them, and b) how to adapt my workflow to include them into it, in order to make myself a faster and leaner computer user. It’s more that I don’t feel the need to increase my productivity in such a way that requires me to change the way I use my computer in a way other than it might have been designed.

I think a part of this is that I don’t use my Mac for professional purposes, it’s very much my home and hobby machine. I spent 12/13 years supporting Unix servers in commercial enterprises. I learned all the arcane keyboard tricks for multiple shells, and could navigate a text file in vi like a man possessed. At work knowing how to shave 10 seconds off the performing of a task yielded tangible benefits, either I got rid of the annoying user faster, or I got more time to talk toot with the rest of the cubicle monkeys, or I got to slope of for longer lunch breaks and so on.

I’ve tried to use Quicksilver and Launchbar and Alfred, and any number of similar tools, and never been happy with the results. I’ve always assumed that it was because the particular app didn’t quite suit how I like to perform a certain action, or perhaps because I wanted it to do even more things beyond what it wanted to allow me, as if even the power tool wasn’t powerful enough for me. For a while I even nurtured a few thoughts that since moving away from a technical role to a managerial one at work I had some how “lost it”, and was in a downward spiral into regular user land.

Then it struck home. When I am at home, what is the motivation for doing things faster? I’m using my computer in a completely different mode to at work. I don’t want to save 10 seconds filing away a dozen emails by calling my customised applescript via a customised keystroke. It gains me nothing, but forces me to turn my brain into work mode. It’s not a chore that must be paired down to the minimum actions that produce the maximum efficiency that I can extract from the process. If I start a photo editing application, it’s not a task to get it out of the way as fast as possible, I’m there to enjoy my photos while I am cropping them and tagging them.

The innate power user need for increasing my productivity and doing things ever faster in a more streamlined workflow is directly irreconcilable with my requirement to enjoy what I am doing. Efficiency such as what these tools lead us towards, is a step away from the creative mode of using my computer to do something for myself. Those few seconds longer it takes me to do something, or the extra few steps required provide me with breathing space to appreciate what I am doing, have just done, or am about to do. I don’t exactly use my computer to create earth shatteringly amazing works of art, but to take the efficiency drive to it’s logical conclusion would have me slaving over ways to edit my photos faster for example, which would surely result in failing to enjoy the process, and as such failing to appreciate my photos etc. I could save time changing my slideshow settings to show each picture for 4 seconds rather than 5, but where is the requirement to reduce the time it takes to do something I have chosen to do, rather than need to do? This blog post has taken roughly an hour to write since I thought up the topic. When I click publish in a few more minutes, I’ll be using my mouse and clicking buttons rather than using shortcuts, and won’t be using any time saving mechanisms to publish it faster. Would saving even 5 minutes of the time taken to load up a text editor normally, write it, copy it into WordPress and so on have yielded anything useful? Would this blog post be any better had I had a few minutes more time through using MarsEdit?

I’m not saying these tools don’t have a place, many people who have different usage requirements will and do find them essential. But I would questions the motives of anyone who is using them because of some internal need to be a “power user”, like it was some sort of entry requirement in the hall of fame for geeks and nerds.

I’d be interested to hear from people who use these tools in a non professional environment and have other views.


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