Looking for computer/productivity tips for users - share yours!
June 11, 2008 3:10 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing an article for my local chamber of commerce newsletter: "Here are the top 5 things you can do right now to make using your computer a better experience". But I keep overcomplicating things.

The article covers any and all tips for using your computer, but the criteria are:
- A general-purpose computer user should be able to handle the task (no recompiling the kernel - this is the Chamber of Commerce, think "realtors").
- Not necessarily willing to reconfigure the registry, either. Many don't have user rights to make big changes.
- No lead time - the user should be able to pick up and use this tip without getting up or buying stuff.
- Think convert a simple user to a power user: something really effective.

Tip samples:
- Get comfortable: Stop slouching, sit up and get the keyboard at the right height, stretch once in a while, turn off the fluorescents, adjust your display settings to fit your eyesight, etc. etc.
- Using keyboard shortcuts, screenshots, quick paths to common tasks, etc.
- Application dependent tips are fine as long as the applications are common. Bonus if the tip in question deals with feisty software (i.e. Entourage or Outlook) and solves a common frustration or dilemma (categories in Outlook, for example).

The trouble is, I'm a tech and while i know some of these from common issues I see, I'm completely unable to "think simple" enough to come up with good tips. Please share something you have found that fundamentally and quickly made using your computer a better experience for you.

Thank you!
posted by disclaimer to Computers & Internet (31 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Download and use a good anti-malware program like AdAware.
Run Disk Defragmenter at the end of the day.
Back up important documents. Seriously, right now. You'll thank me later.
posted by jedicus at 3:20 PM on June 11, 2008

Oh, and I mean to run disk defragmenter once at the end of today, not at the end of every day.
posted by jedicus at 3:20 PM on June 11, 2008

the first thing that comes to mind is getting a pop-up blocker. a lot of average not-so-savvy computer users are still bombarded by pop-ups because they haven't learned to block them.
or perhaps just recommend downloading firefox as a good start.
posted by buka at 3:25 PM on June 11, 2008

Switch to a browser that uses tabs. Uninstall programs you don't use. Use msconfig to trim your startup items.
posted by hjo3 at 3:26 PM on June 11, 2008

Firefox + Adblock Plus + Adblock Filterset.G Updater
posted by ellenaim at 3:26 PM on June 11, 2008

oh, and encourage people to password protect their computers and sensitive documents.
and then remind them to change their passwords regularly, and stop using their pets names and birthdays.
posted by buka at 3:28 PM on June 11, 2008

I would recommend cleaning off your messy desktop (both real and virtual). It makes getting down to business easier and more enjoyable without all that clutter around you.
posted by plasticbugs at 3:36 PM on June 11, 2008

Firefox, firefox, firefox. Did I mention Firefox? Easier to use, greatly improves security.
posted by mattholomew at 3:36 PM on June 11, 2008

Clever Firefox add-ons, like ResizeableTextArea -- so awesome -- and the one that (can't remember its name) lets you highlight a phase, drag it a short distance (a "gesture"), then looks it up in Google or Dictionary or does whatever it's configured to do. I need to get that one again.

Learn keyboard shortcuts: copy, paste, and for the web browser: alt+left arrow for back, alt + right arrow for forward.

Realize that you don't always _have_ to have the web browser maximized; you can have it on half the screen, and whatever document you're working on in the other half of the screen.
posted by amtho at 3:44 PM on June 11, 2008

Using alt-tab to switch between open windows applications -- I'm always surprised at how many people don't know that.
posted by mattholomew at 3:50 PM on June 11, 2008

I wrote a story for my employer's email newsletter about good passwords, and ended up incorporating it into the "Security" section of our website. Might be a little more than you're looking for, but it was quite popular when that edition went out. "Create & keep good passwords"

Maybe some Google power-user tips? I blew somebody's mind the other day with the "use Google as a calculator" trick. (An 1/8 of a cup is 2 tablespoons, BTW.)
posted by epersonae at 3:54 PM on June 11, 2008

Even though you said you don't want people to buy stuff, adding RAM does make a huge difference. Maybe as a bonus tip or a follow up article of slightly more involved things to do to help computer use?

But as for this one, here are some things I'm thinking could help.

1 - Having to pay for software doesn't make it good (or the flip side of the argument: Free doesn't mean crappy). This may have been true in the past, but now there are plenty of free alternatives that are just as good, if not better, than the software people pay for (ie Gimp, Firefox/Opera, OpenOffice, etc.)

2 - Some sort of launching program. Normally I wouldn't say that adding another program could help with productivity. But I got AutoHotkey just so I could set up my own keyboard shortcuts to launch programs. There are simpler options then what I use, but personalized shortcuts are great.

3 - If you write a lot of reports/papers/whatever that has the same information or the same layout, save a copy that has all of the recurring information. Make that version read only so you can't accidentally use it as the real thing instead of a starting point.

4 - To go along with plasticbugs' comment, why not try TopDesk? It creates a menu that lives in the tool bar consisting of everything on your desktop. It will also hide everything on your desktop so you won't see it. [Note: It was written for Windoes 95 but I'm running it on two XP machines without a problem].

I'll come back if I think of any more.
posted by theichibun at 4:05 PM on June 11, 2008

Use a text expansion tool that works across all applications. I'm on a Mac and I use Typinator, but there are lots of options for both Macs and PCs. It's easy, and it's saved me a bunch of time.

Depending on how sophisticated your readers are, something as basic as learning to set your browser start page to whatever you want (instead of the default) can help a lot. I've done this for a number of people.

Switching from a PC to a Mac was the single biggest thing I've ever done to make using my computer a better experience, but I'm guessing that's not the kind of thing you're looking for. :-)
posted by jeri at 4:11 PM on June 11, 2008

The first thing that came to my mind, is learn the short-cut key that enlarges the font in your web browser. For Firefox it is ctrl and + or ctrl and mousewheel. I always enlarge the text in my web browser to a nice children's book size :).
posted by nickerbocker at 4:17 PM on June 11, 2008

1- Back up your documents!
2- Use the latest versions of Internet Explorer, Firefox, antivirus, etc.
3- Keep your OS updated.
4- Run Crap Cleaner.
5- Identify the one major "thing" that is a constant irritation (will be unique to the individual user)- and use google to research a solution.
6- Backup.
posted by gjc at 4:38 PM on June 11, 2008

- Run disk check and defragmentation tools once a month or so
- Always run an anti-virus and anti-malware program, make sure to keep it updated with the latest definition files
- Make sure there is either a software or a hardware firewall between the computer and the internet
- Use a program like CCleaner about once a week to remove temporary files/clean the internet cache/keep the registry clean
- Learn to monitor processes/always-running programs in the task bar and how to turn them off permanently in the program settings. (Sophisticated users can use CCleaner or msconfig to manage startup items at well, but then they also have to learn how to Google any unfamiliar .exe files so that they don't mess anything up.)
- Switch to Firefox, then learn about addons and where to find them
- Learn how to disable the fancy effects in Windows XP and Vista to add a little zip to older computers
- Learn to use the Windows Task Monitor to diagnose and terminate locked up programs and to identify memory hogs, etc.
-Keyboard shortcuts in general and in Office in particular
posted by gemmy at 4:38 PM on June 11, 2008

Consider an online automated backup program like the one provided by Mozy.com if you have high-speed internet. The first few gigabytes are even free. Also, Firefox + Adblock, as mentioned before.
posted by procrastination at 4:50 PM on June 11, 2008

If you're using a Windows computer with a CRT, change the monitor refresh rate from the default 60 Hz to 72 or faster.

(For the life of me, I don't understand why Microsoft did that. There are tens of thousands of people getting flicker headaches from 60 Hz refresh because they don't know to change it.)
posted by Class Goat at 4:54 PM on June 11, 2008

Change your browser's default home page to something you are interested in looking at (say, CNN or Google), or a blank page, instead of it always opening up MSN or your ISP's home page.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:15 PM on June 11, 2008

Sorry - just thought of another one.

Download the latest update to your antivirus software and run a scan right now.

I am continually amazed by people who think they are protected simply because Norton or whatever came installed on their new PCs.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:17 PM on June 11, 2008

* Tell people about how you can open multiple web browser windows/tabs.

* Explain in clear terms the purpose and usage of the right mouse button (or Ctrl-click on a Mac with a one-button mouse). Give some examples from popular applications.
posted by staggernation at 5:24 PM on June 11, 2008

1. Backup your data.
2. Make sure your computer stays up to date, including Windows and your antivirus software
3. Run antispyware software like AdAware or Windows Defender
4. Use CTRL+ENTER to auto complete web addresses in your browser.
posted by cnc at 6:57 PM on June 11, 2008

I use a hot keys program to automate text that I send over and over again in response to common questions and I find it a tremendous help. For people with small businesses who likely don't have full CRM tools with templated text and such, this can really help with answering simple email queries like 'when are you open' without retyping all the time.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:01 PM on June 11, 2008

Zomg Launchy

No, for real. I've met maybe 10 people in my life who understood how to run a computer filing system. Launchy = win, and is more of a win if you understand how to name your files. Example:
2009 IRS Economic Stimulus Incentive Flier
buy it thing

'Cuz later you say "that file with the IRS thingie...I need it" Alt+Space "IRS" BINGO!
posted by TomMelee at 7:26 PM on June 11, 2008

Here are some of the things I do in my non-techie office, windows XP/2000 users

- Show the user how to adjust the speed of the mouse and suggest they play with the settings. Faster = less wrist/hand movement.

- Start > programs > r-click > sort by name. Amazing how many people bimble along with it unsorted.

- I cringe when I see people scrolling about large folders in the default view. In windows explorer > view > list or details. Then tools > folder options > view > apply to all folders. If users use a network storage drive also ensure 'display the full path in the address bar' is ticked.

The other thing that blows peoples mind is finding out how to split and freeze panes in Excel, they love that!
posted by Ness at 3:39 AM on June 12, 2008

Oh, yeah! Using "details" view for folders, then clicking the column headings to sort the file listing.
posted by amtho at 6:16 AM on June 12, 2008

And searching for text strings within a viewed web page in a browser: ctrl+f then type the string you're searching for. Can save tons of time.
posted by amtho at 6:18 AM on June 12, 2008

Seconding Launchy. It gives me a little frisson of happiness every day.

Also, review a couple of the Google operators to upgrade their searching skills. While my Google-fu is not strong, I find that even my feeble skills are typically one step up from my office neighbors, who just punch random and poorly selected search terms in, stare at the first page of results, and then conclude "there is no answer."
posted by cairnish at 8:26 AM on June 12, 2008

Get a real, honest-to-god mousepad. No more book covers or sheets of copy paper.
posted by Brian James at 2:14 PM on June 12, 2008

I've come late to this, but I like the idea that events on the calendar remind you to do certain things with your computer: "when the clocks go back, that's the date to burn your family photos to a DVD and send it offsite", or maybe "Halloween is the day we all make sure we've got secure passwords", stuff like that.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 8:06 PM on June 12, 2008

Thanks everyone, if I used your tip in my article, you got a best answer.

The "run scans/get antivirus protection/antispyware/run backups" answers are all very good ideas and will probably make it into a future article...

Thanks everyone!
posted by disclaimer at 3:32 PM on June 17, 2008

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