Veni vidi didici - shortcuts to success

There are many ways of picking up a new skill, whether it be a language, an instrument or the learning the names of all the capital cities in the world, but in my experience one of the hardest skills to pick up is the use of a new piece of software, such as a new bug tracking system. It's not that it is difficult to pick up at all - most things will have some semblance of user-friendliness - but the nuances that separate a novice from an expert user can be very hard to find on your own.

Let's take Excel as a good example. Most people know how to create a rudimentary spreadsheet but there are so many shortcuts, alternatives and non-obvious ways of working that it's unlikely you'll come across someone who knows them all. I've often been amazed when watching people whose day-to-day job seems to involve immersing themselves in spreadsheets that they are unaware of what I consider basic necessities such as using the drag handle to continue a sequence, or ctrl-down to move to the bottom of a column. Watching them struggle when I know there are better ways of doing things can be painful, but it's usually not appropriate (or welcome) to point this out (particularly in a room full of other people). There's a testing lesson to be learnt here about not assuming everyone does things the same way, but that's not the main point of this post - I'm more interested in the sitting and watching part I just mentioned.

I think one of the main reasons that people don't know these shortcuts or helper functions is that they fall under "unknown unknowns" i.e. we don't look for a better way of doing something because we don't know there is one. Either through a lack of curiosity or belief that if there was a better way the software would tell you (if only that was the case). That's why my handy tip is this: watch other people while they work.

When working in a new CMS, bug tracker or similar piece of software, if there are other users already familiar with the product I will try to get them to give me a demonstration - preferably face-to-face and not over a video link or shared screen - often a lot of the shortcuts are keyboard based and it won't always be obvious that someone is doing something clever unless you can see exactly what it is they are doing. I used to work with one guy who was a keyboard ninja - to the extent of having to get him to slow down his actions during a training session he once gave so that we could work out exactly how he had switched between two virtual machines, opened the settings panel, changed configuration and restarted the VM, all in the blink of an eye, with what looked liked 3 key presses. Without being there we would never have known how it was done and would have spent 5 minutes doing what only needed to take seconds.

The same applies to excel - most of the tricks I know have been learnt by seeing someone else using them in front of me, the spreadsheet being a sideshow to the conversation we were having. It's amazing what you can pick up this way - e.g. when at a developer's desk, enquiring why the site has gone down (again), watching what they do to check what the problem might be can be really useful as there may be things you can do yourself if it happens again. (I even once managed to pick up a password of a bank employee when they typed it in very slowly in front of me, and then had to spend the rest of the conversation trying not to laugh because it was "pigsbum").

So, to paraphrase Julius Caesar, I came, I saw, I learned a few shortcuts. Or as Shaw Taylor would say (showing my age now) - keep 'em peeled!


  1. Couldn't agree more. Most of the IT tricks I know I learned by watching support guys do stuff on my machine and thinking "Must remember that…"

    It's always worth remembering keyboard shortcuts when testing to see if they are at all disabled by the application under test. I once had a contract to test a medical app intended to be used in a laboratory situation with touchscreen keyboards. The app workflow required patient names to be cut and pasted into one particular field, but I found that the touchscreen keyboards had the Ctrl key disabled...

    1. Ha! Definitely been caught like that before. It's also amazing when you watch someone actually try and use a site you've been testing and realise quite how differently they behave compared to what you would expect.


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