How to best use popular computer programs

Do you know someone who lines up text with the space bar or tab key to make a table in Word, adjusts fonts in PowerPoint slides one at a time, or compares information in a long spreadsheet by repeatedly scrolling up and down?

These are common ways to waste effort in popular computer programs, says U-M researcher Suresh Bhavnani. His five-year study, funded by the National Science Foundation, identified four underutilized powers of popular programs and nine strategies to exploit those powers for efficient and effective use.

"Despite many years of using applications such as Web authoring tools, spreadsheets and word processors, most users have difficulty acquiring the knowledge to use these programs most effectively. Often, computer users do unnecessary work, which leads to wasted time and costly errors especially for complex tasks. The computer should be doing more of the work," says Bhavnani, a research assistant professor in the Center for Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics in the Medical School.

In addition to identifying strategies to exploit the power of computer applications, Bhavnani has identified a teaching approach that helps users quickly learn those strategies. The approach could be used in the workplace, universities and high schools, he said.

"Many users don't exploit the powers of the computer — the special functions that computer applications provide," Bhavnani says.

Bhavnani noticed this "missing layer of knowledge" while studying how architects use computer-aided design programs. He found that they used the computers in much the same way they had used their pencils and T-squares.

For example, one way to draw three arched windows is to draw all the arcs across the windows, then all their vertical lines, followed by their horizontal lines. This method is efficient for manual drawing as it saves time by eliminating switching between tools such as the ruler and compass. But on a computer, it's best to draw all the elements of the first window, group the elements, then copy and paste them to make more windows.

Bhavnani calls the underutilized powers he identified iteration, propagation, organization and visualization.

Bhavnani and his colleagues taught and tested the nine general strategies to almost 400 students at Carnegie Mellon University and U-M. His results showed a statistically significant improvement in the effectiveness and efficiency of the students' computer use.