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Semi-custom messages with text expanders

The growing popularity of Google Helpouts mean that I often respond to requests from people who want to learn more about taking notes and learning more effectively. I want to make sure that people who book Helpouts with me (for the virtual equivalent of hot chocolate and a muffin!) think about specific questions, check for technical issues, and are otherwise prepared for the 15-minute conversation. That way, we can both get the most of the time.

Since I find myself sending people messages that are similar but not identical to others I’ve sent, I use text expanders instead of autoresponders to save myself time. My favourite automation program is AutoHotkey, which is rather geekily configured through plain text files. (Want a cleaner interface? Try Lifehacker’s recommendations for Windows or Mac). I’ve defined a few hotstrings that expand to welcome messages for my different Helpouts, nudges about technical issues, and so on.

If you find yourself typing or copying and pasting a lot of text frequently, consider using a text expander. Typing a pre-defined shortcut is easier than finding a specific item in your snippets file, and you might even be able to do all sorts of other things with the tool. For example, I’ve used AutoHotkey to set a keyboard shortcut for copying something from a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet row, switching to another application, pasting it in, reformatting it, and then moving on to the next row. Lots of good stuff. See my Autohotkey blog posts for more examples.

Be lazy and automate! =)

Building my visual vocabulary: Breaking down other people’s sketchnotes into component parts

I want to draw more expressively. Some easy ways to improve my visual vocabulary are to look at how other people draw things and practise drawing with those styles. I started by redrawing the images onto index cards, but it was a hassle to keep the index cards sorted. Besides, I wasn’t looking forward to the error-prone process of scanning all the index cards in and making them available on my phone or computer. I didn’t want to fuss about with splitting my screen and trying to draw in a small section, or browsing through pages on my tablet while redrawing things on my tablet PC. I wanted a quick and easy way to build a visual glossary in preparation for drawing things myself.

Skitch turned out to be a great way to quickly capture small sections from other people’s sketchnotes and add them to Evernote. Ctrl-% captures a screenshot. That requires too much hand gymnastics and popped up a dialog, so I used AutoHotkey to map my F5 function key to ^`%{Space}. This meant that I could hit a single key to capture the screenshot and send the previous one to Evernote, so I could keep one hand on the mouse and one hand on the keyboard. It was relaxing work, and so easy that I got a little carried away. I captured some 800 images before I sat down and started classifying them.

I wanted to label each image with a keyword that I could use to find it. Another Autohotkey shortcut mapping F6 to !nv{Enter}{Esc}{Tab}^a made it much easier to move the note to my Visual Library notebook and select the next note for editing. I settled into the rhythm of typing in keywords and pressing F6, and after a couple of hours, I’d classified all the images I’d captured so far. I spent a little time merging similar concepts for easier review, ending up with 575 entries in my visual library.

Some things I learned along the way:

  • Many sketchnotes have just a handful of images. Some feel very graphical anyway because of lettering flourishes and creative layouts. My style actually involves more mini-images than many of the ones I’ve seen, but I don’t develop them to the level of detail in some people’s sketchnotes.
  • A good portrait goes a long way. I should practise drawing people.
  • Simple shading has a nice effect. A light gray tone or a subtle shadow colour can really add depth.

There are still plenty of other sketchnotes to harvest drawings from, so I can alternate harvesting images with practising drawing them.

Links: Skitch, Evernote, Autohotkey, the Sketchnote Index

Update on typing: Added AutoCorrect hotkey script, now clocking in at 118wpm

While poking around the AutoHotkey installation, I found an autocorrect script. Autocorrect might help me be less twitchy about typos, which could help me speed up further. Instead of clocking in at 90wpm, I now reach 118wpm as measured on http://www.typingtest.com. There are probably some learning effects because I’m using the same typing test, but repeated practice should level that out, and trying different texts should mix it up.

AutoHotkey is pretty darn cool. One of the good things about using AutoHotkey for autocorrection is that it works across all applications (even Emacs!). I can easily tweak the AutoHotkey script to add, delete, or change substitutions.

I’ll keep track of my time over more trials as I experiment with different things. Good to play around with this!

Saving team members from RSI

I watched Jen: Ctrl-C, Alt-Tab, click, click, Ctrl-v, click, click, click, click, click, Alt-Tab, Down, Ctrl-C… One by one, Jen copied the tasks from our Drupal planning spreadsheet to the Rational Team Concert task-tracking system.

I didn’t know if RTC had a batch import system we could use, but I’d rather do a macro using AutoHotkey instead of letting Jen copy the information one row at a time. (And with so many clicks, too!)

Fifteen minutes and some tweaking later, I have an AutoHotkey script that copies the information, creates the task, and moves to the next row. A few minutes, and I’ve copied all the rest of the tasks.

Less risk of repetitive strain injury for everyone, more interesting work, and the ability to easily handle future spreadsheets. Yay!

I show her the AutoHotkey script at work. “Coool,” she says.

Time to organize the tasks by story. Drag-and-drop to the rescue. Not easy with a mouse – Fitts’s law, small targets – but it’s easy enough with the tablet stylus. It feels natural.

Keep an eye out for the little things that you can fix with just the right tool. =)

AutoHotkey script:

F12::MakeRTCTask()
MakeRTCTask()
{
   SetTitleMatchMode,2
   CoordMode Mouse, Screen
   WinActivate, Planning
   WinWaitActive, Planning
   Send ^c
   Sleep 200
   WinActivate, IBM Rational Team Concert
   WinWaitActive, IBM Rational Team Concert
   Click 972, 346  ; add
   Sleep 500
   Click 927, 406  ; task
   Sleep 500
   Click 468, 154  ; summary text field
   Send ^v
   Send {TAB}{TAB}
   Sleep 100
   Send {DOWN}  ; filed against
   Send {TAB}{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}
   Sleep 100
   Send 1  ; priority
   Send 1
   Click 807, 125  ; save and close
   Sleep 500
   Send {PgUp}{PgUp}{PgUp}
   WinActivate, Planning
   WinWaitActive, Planning
   Send {ESC}{DOWN}
}

Old notes on staffing a virtual conference booth

It’s fantastic how a blog archive lets me pull up lessons learned from a virtual conference I helped at two years ago. Some of these tips from my internal blog post are platform-specific, but others might be useful.

Staffing the Social Networking booth at the Innovation in Action event. Here are quick tips:

  • Set up text shortcuts. You’ll need to type in a lot of text rapidly. The built-in Text Entries are not available when you’re sending an initial message or inviting someone to a chat, so type in some boilerplate text into Notepad and then copy and paste it. Messages you send from the booth will be marked as from your booth name, so include your name and e-mail address in your message. Advanced tip: use AutoHotkey to create a text macro. Install it from AutoHotkeyInstaller.exe, create a file like shortcuts.ahk (customize this of course), then double-click shortcuts.ahk to make it part of your system. Example shortcuts.ahk:
    ::!hello::Welcome to the IBM social networking booth. I’m Sacha Chua ([email removed]), a consultant who helps organizations figure out what Web 2.0 is, how it fits with their strategy, how to implement it, and how to make the most of it. Please feel free to ask me questions by sending a note or inviting me to chat. What can I help you with?
    ::!tapscott::Hello and welcome to the IBM social networking booth. I’m Sacha Chua ([email removed]), an IBM consultant who helps organizations figure out what Web 2.0 is, how it fits with their strategy, how to implement it, and how to make the most of it. What did you think of Don Tapscott’s keynote? Please feel free to start a chat if you want to talk about it or if you have any questions about social networking.

    After that, you’ll be able to type !hello into anywhere and have it expanded. To update, edit shortcuts.ahk and then double-click it again.

  • Check people’s visitor histories. The visitor history will tell you about any messages sent from or to this booth, if the visitor has been to this booth before, and so on. Great way to make sure you don’t send a message twice.
  • Send people messages and invite them to chat with you. You can initiate only one chat at a time, and you have to wait for the person to accept or reject the invitation before inviting another person. You can send as many messages as you want, though, and you can have as many open chats as you want.
  • Send yourself follow-up requests after conversations. Your goal in each conversation is to find out what people are interested and give yourself an excuse to follow up. After you get that, use the [i] button on the right (your chat partner’s profile) to display the profile, then use the Followup button to send yourself a copy of the person’s visitor history. WARNING: There’s some delay when selecting names from the list, so double-check that you’re sending the right person’s information.
  • Pull in experts. Need help answering a question? Tell the visitor you’re bringing someone in, then click on the expert’s profile, choose Invite to chat, and choose the chat session you want the expert to join.

Non-obvious things:

  • Your name will not be associated with any messages (from or to), so don’t count on being able to quickly see replies from people or find out what you sent someone.
  • The sorting buttons on the lists sort only the displayed entries, not all the entries. Entries will always be arranged chronologically, although in-page sorting may be different. Don’t count on being able to use this to see all the messages sent by visitors. Just leave it on Date.
  • If someone leaves your booth while you’re trying to check their visitor history, their info box disappears.
  • As people enter and leave the booth, odd things happen to the page. Be prepared to have to find people again.
  • Things get much quieter when people are listening to sessions. Eat or rest during those times.

Braindump: Automating repetitive tasks using AutoHotkey

Note for myself (because I’m going to need this again someday!), and for others who drop by:

I needed to copy information from 45 slides and put them into an Excel spreadsheet so that I could reorganize the content and put them into a wiki. Fortunately, the author of the Powerpoint deck used a fairly consistent slide format. I used AutoHotkey to copy most of the information over by simulating mouse clicks and button presses. I started with this macro, which copies the text, switches to my spreadsheet, moves a cell to the right, and pastes it:

F12::
Send, {CTRLDOWN}c{CTRLUP}
WinWait, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
IfWinNotActive, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, , WinActivate, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
Send, {RIGHT}{CTRLDOWN}v{CTRLUP}{ALTDOWN}{ALTUP}
WinActivate, Microsoft PowerPoint
return

 

I wanted to save even more keystrokes and mouseclicks, so I ended up automating the copying of each slide using the following script. It wasn’t perfect, but it saved me time and it was fun to make.

F11::
WinActivate, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
MouseClickDrag, left, 1037,  327, 1500, 327
Send, {CTRLDOWN}c{CTRLUP}
WinActivate, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
Send, {CTRLDOWN}v{CTRLUP}{RIGHT}
WinActivate, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
MouseClickDrag, left,  1037,  366, 1500, 366
Sleep, 100
Send, {CTRLDOWN}c{CTRLUP}
WinActivate, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
Send, {RIGHT}{CTRLDOWN}v{CTRLUP}
WinActivate, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
MouseClickDrag, left,  457,  344, 1500, 1000
Sleep, 100
Send, {CTRLDOWN}c{CTRLUP}
WinActivate, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
Send, {RIGHT}{RIGHT}{CTRLDOWN}v{CTRLUP}
WinActivate, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
MouseClickDrag, left,  454,  454, 1500, 1000
Sleep, 100
Send, {CTRLDOWN}c{CTRLUP}
WinActivate, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
Send, {RIGHT}{CTRLDOWN}v{CTRLUP}
WinActivate, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
MouseClickDrag, left,  564,  535, 1500, 1000
Sleep, 100
Send, {CTRLDOWN}c{CTRLUP}
WinActivate, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
Send, {RIGHT}{CTRLDOWN}v{CTRLUP}{ALTDOWN}{ALTUP}
WinActivate, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
MouseClickDrag, left,  490,  637, 1500, 1000
Sleep, 100
Send, {CTRLDOWN}c{CTRLUP}
WinActivate, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
Send, {RIGHT}{CTRLDOWN}v{CTRLUP}{LEFT}{LEFT}{LEFT}{LEFT}{LEFT}{LEFT}{DOWN}
WinActivate, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
Send, {PGDN}
return

Automation is worth the time investment. If you’re on Windows, check out AutoHotkey. =)