I’m a quick learning of software applications and I’ve done this by venturing into complex programs when I was very young from my interest in 3D graphics and video editing. In spending much time in these types of applications over the years I have developed the skills to quickly learn any software application and I think I can help others to develop some of those same skills if practiced. So these are the things I find work best to learn a new application and become more productive in it.
Understand the Software’s Purpose and Usage First
This is the first step because if you don’t know what an application is supposed to do, it is very difficult to learn and apply to how you think it might or should be used. Depending on how you come across a new application, there are usually additional resources available to quickly get familiar with the application. If you don’t know, look it up online, ask others who might use it and find out from the manufacturer or author who the software was built for and why?
If you know the applications purpose, you can look at it from the perspective of the intended user and that is the first step to quickly learning it. If you attempt to learn an application from a user’s perspective it wasn’t designed for, chances are, you will become frustrated much easier or disappointed.
The first thing I do is go and find the options. I don’t try it, explore it, start some simple project or doing anything else first. I always check the options. I’ve learned that this tells a lot about an application and it also typically quickly shows some functionality of the software that you may not find out about with general use. Often options hide things like advanced menus or toolbars that you’d have a hard time finding otherwise. I love an application that has lots of configuration options and it always helps me to learn quickly what I can do with it.
Options often reveal ways to add, configure or setup the software to your own personal liking as well. The quicker you do this, the more comfortable you will feel with the application and it will help to make you feel like you are in control of it, instead of it in control of you, which is exactly what you want when learning an application.
Run Full Screen so you Have no Distractions
Most software nowadays has an option to run full screen, and if not, it can at least be maximized. This is simply a good way to eliminate other computer distractions so you can focus on learning that application, and that application alone. I have a bunch of tips in this previous article on how to maximize your productivity on your computer and most of those can be helpful in this step as well for learning this new app.
Read the Quick Guides and Manual if its Complex
Simple software might be easy enough to pick up on your own just by playing with it for a few minutes or perhaps an hour or two. However, if you cannot master an application in a couple hours, it is likely complex enough to have a user manual and that user manual will usually be quite helpful. Yes, there are some bad user manuals out there but most have useful tips or at least they are a good reference to browse through to find any features or areas you haven’t yet explored or learned on your own.
The 3D software I use has hundreds of pages of user manuals and they ar e jammed full of useful tips, workflow suggestions, details and examples on how to do certain things, shortcuts and many other useful bits. They are always worth browsing and reading straight though if the manual has enough good content in it.
I also recommend you make your own notes for items you think you will use in the future or want to try.
Check Online for Tips on that Software
Many applications have there own communities of followers or fan sites or forums online now a days. These are excellent resources for finding additional tips for a piece of software. They sometimes have a frequently asked questions (FAQ) section that might answer some common questions you have. Forums are great places to ask questions as well or to get support from the manufacturer or author if you need some help with the software.
Another often overlooked method of learning software is to search for and follow free tutorials. There are literally hundreds of tutorial sites out there and thousands of applications that have tutorials written for them. Many of these are free and can be easy to find for your application by doing just a few Google searches using keywords with your software name and “free tutorials” or “tutorials” or “help guides”.
This one is definitely my favorite. I love keyboard shortcuts for applications and is actually one of the first things I learn if I know I will continue to use that application often. Shortcuts allow you to run commands, open windows or navigate the options and features in an application much quicker than having to mouse to those locations every time. When I’m working in an application, I keep my left hand on the keyboard pounding out all my known shortcuts and my mouse can stay in hand doing the mouse actions, instead of all the menu and options work.
I use a 7 button mouse and actually put man y keyboard combos and commands right on the mouse buttons using its driver software. I can customize this on a per application and it makes it must faster to access what I without moving my hand away from the mouse.
You can often find keyboard shortcuts and shortcut cheap sheets online as well that people have build if you want a quick reference card for all the shortcuts. Some user manuals and applications have this built in so you can easily refer to it for learning the shortcut keys.
Don’t Be Afraid to Explore
Last but certainly not least. You must not be afraid to explore in an application. You will never learn how to use it, if you don’t use it and the more you explore and learn about the application, the more likely it is that you will know that tool or feature when you really need it and can then immediately be useful with it. Often there are multiple ways of doing things and if you explore an application, you can often find quicker alternatives to complete the same task. The last thing you want is to be repeating a task using some difficult slow process just because you don’t know how to use the application. I see this everyday with common applications like excel and word where people struggle with formatting options and simple features just because they have never taken the time to learn a few features that are designed to help in those areas.
Watching an others use an application is often useful as well since you can see how they use it or what features they use that you can learn from. I love it when I notice someone do something in an application that I didn’t know was possible and then can ask them and quickly adopt that method myself.
So, I hope these techniques will help you to master an application and ultimately, be more productive with it.
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