Last Week on my Mac: Workflow efficiency

Whatever you use your Mac for, you’ll almost inevitably have to perform repetitive tasks. You might have a batch of your images to tweak to make them look just the way that you want, video to edit up into a movie, or – in my case this last week – a complex hypertext document to wire up with links.

Identically repetitive tasks, in which you do exactly the same thing to a long series of documents, are thankfully rare now, and usually best tackled by some form of scripting. Pushing a few hundred digital images through exactly the same adjustments to alter exposure, sharpen, and convert from raw to JPEG, for instance, should be something you can set your app to do for you.

Many more tasks need an individual touch each time: a little more or less exposure adjustment, perhaps, according to eye. In those circumstances, what you need is an app which is designed for sleek workflows, not something which is ponderous or fiddly.

An example in text or word processing would not be searching and replacing a single word, but rephrasing content, perhaps to reduce the number of passives, or to change from gendered pronouns and usage to ungendered ones.

I mention wiring up a complex hypertext document because that is what focussed my mind this week. You can read my account in this article, and maybe even have a look at the fruit of my labour. My point here is that what I had to do was not amenable to any straightforward scripting or automation solution. One day someone might be able to apply AI to assist, but for now this was dependent on my working through a sequence of steps in the authoring environment. Many times.

In this situation, we not only have the same basic task to repeat many times, perhaps for several hours, but we need to complete it free from error. Good apps are very forgiving, with Undo features that the real world often sadly lacks, but using them disrupts task performance and prolongs the time taken to complete our work. The longer it takes, the more fatigued we get, and the more errors we make.

What we seek in good apps, then, are accessible commands and controls with which we can build clean, rhythmic workflows. Switching repeatedly between input devices is not only interruptive of rhythm, but increases the risk of error, when a hand may not return to quite the right place on the keyboard, and you end up pressing Command-X instead of Command-C, for example.

The very best apps are those designed by developers who use them, and who understand how others use them. Their products ensure that our workflows are clean and rhythmic, and as a result run smoothly and without error. Products designed by ‘engineers’ who lack deep insight into their use are all too often feature-rich but a pain in the butt to use.

This is not just about compliance with human interface guidelines, although they express general principles which tend to make for good workflows. It’s about an app’s fitness for purpose, though, whether you can sit down and repeat the same basic task for several hours at a time.

In my particular context, authoring hypertext, I know of no product which can match Eastgate’s Storyspace in terms of features. Equally, I know of no other product which so often provides me with clean, rhythmic workflows. It has had plenty of time to evolve them, given that its first version shipped at around the same time that we were all raving about HyperCard. The fact that its lead developer has recently released his own hypertext novel, Those Trojan Girls, authored using Storyspace, is even more important.

By a strange coincidence, I have also just been using Affinity Photo to process a batch of images from my camera, another task which requires a clean, rhythmic workflow. Although a much more recent product, it too has obviously been designed by people who actually use it, and remains a joy to use as a result.

For all its other faults, there are tasks which Apple’s Xcode SDK also makes very efficient. Its code completion support, contextual help, and the interface between its integrated Interface Builder and source code, are all fine examples of brilliant interface design which make for clean, rhythmic workflows.

I have dozens of other apps here which, in their own way, have just as inspired interfaces. With a few exceptions – such as Xcode – they are the products of smaller, independent software developers. They are usually very rich in features too, which dispels the myth that complex and sophisticated apps are inevitably hard to use.

It’s a shame that more don’t shop around for software, rather than buying whatever the big name developers care to offer.