in Mac apps, tip

Learning How to Use It

So you decide to buy a copy of Things from Cultured Code. You’ve read great things about it (no pun intended), and you’re ready to graduate from chaotic analog scratchings on a notepad to an elegant digital management process using an award-winning application.

Impatient, you give the instructions a cursory glance, then begin madly entering tasks. A week later, you note that most of the items you dumped in the inbox during the first week are overdue. Your initial enthusiasm wanes. You want to use this app, but old habits die hard. With a tinge of guilt, you keep reverting to writing down your tasks on a notepad.

One day, you decide to give it another go. You paid for this app, after all. Months go by. In time, you learn just enough (largely through trial-and-error) to use Things as a basic task management tool. Habits are formed. You know how to add new task items, create projects, set due dates, and tag your items. But your list is still chaotic. Your tags are haphazard. You start a project, then abandon it. You tend to stick all of your tasks in the inbox and leave them there. While you’ve made the switch to digital task management, you know that you’re not taking advantage of the power under the hood. You know that—if you took the time to really grok this app—you’d be more productive.

Like many of the other Mac apps you’ve purchased, Things is a tool you want to learn how to use in the way it was intended to be used—but time is at a premium. And, let’s be honest, you just aren’t going to take the time to read the documentation.

Enter the screencast. For many people, it’s hard to really get how to use an app by reading written instructions. It’s much easier (and more enjoyable) to watch a video demonstration.

series of high-quality videos that teach you how to deploy your purchase. These videos are available at ScreenCastsOnline, a one-man show run out of the UK offering high-quality video productions that illustrate how to use the Mac OS and a variety of popular Mac software titles.

If you don’t want to or can’t afford to subscribe to this service, you’ll still find excellent free tutorials here. And if you’re willing to invest a modest amount of cash to learn how to better use your apps and operating system, now is the time to grab a membership. This month, ScreenCastsOnline is offering a 50 percent discount. At $57 for a six-month membership, this a good deal. You get a lot for your money.

Disclaimer: I don’t subscribe to ScreenCastsOnline, and I’m not sponsored by this operation in any way. But I’ve viewed many SCO videos and have found that they are uniformly outstanding. Take a look at some of the many free screencasts on offer and decide for yourself. I say that if you’re going to pay for a Mac application, it’s in your interest to learn how to use it well. I think this is one of the best ways to do this.

Another solid option is Lynda.com. The reason I don’t subscribe to ScreenCastsOnline is that I’m fortunate enough to enjoy unlimited access to Lynda through my employer, so my plate is full. This site offers a huge selection of tutorials, enough to keep me occupied for years. If you are in the business of web development, graphic design, video work, photography, audio production, or Flash development, you’ll get a lot out of these tutorials.

Here’s the difference between the two: SCO is consumer-focused and Mac-centric. Lynda.com is geared towards corporate users who have employees on a variety of platforms with specialized needs. SCO focuses on Mac-specific OS and app tutorials that meet the needs of most Mac users. Lynda.com focuses on professional development and training for higher-end applications/tools like the Adobe Creative Suite or Final Cut Studio. An advantage of SCO is that you can download tutorials and keep them forever. There’s no DRM. With Lynda.com, tutorials are online-only. For personal training on the Mac, SCO is the way to go. For professional training, steer to Lynda (and you may want to consider pitching Lynda to your employer. Compared to on-site training courses, it’s dirt cheap).

alternativeto.net and iusethis.com.

AlternativeTo is the newer of the two sites, and I really like the approach they’re taking. Pick a product (Mac, Windows, Linux, online) and see a user-generated lists of alternatives to that product. There are 15 alternatives to Photoshop for the Mac, for example. While all the alternatives are not necessarily equals to a given app, it at least provides a wide angle shot of what’s available. I use it as an exploratory tool to find out about applications I’ve never heard of before.

The other site, iusethis, is similar. You can look up an app (Mac, iPhone, Windows) to get an idea of how many people use it, to include viewing random user comments of varying merit. As with AlternativeTo, it’s easy to link to related apps to explore other solutions. This site is best for taking a quick snapshot of the relative popularity of a given app, what some people are saying about it, and for exploring the most popular apps (according to the self-selected user base of iusethis) in a given category. It’s the site I use to get a ballpark estimation of what users think of a given application.