The word “accessibility” has been used for decades as a catch-all for how people of differing abilities can interact with their surroundings, and often applies to technology which can help to overcome barriers. It’s very easy to go about your day with no thought to how others could be affected by things that you don’t even notice, whether as a result of actions you do or just objects you encounter. Design plays a big part in helping people who have disabilities or who may find certain things more difficult, and good design means that assistive technology does not get in the way of anyone who doesn’t need it.
These technologies often spawn wider usage in unforeseen ways, and in many cases are developed not for goals of making a fortune or having global influence, but to help a particular individual:
Microsoft has a long history in pushing accessibility technology – Windows 95 was the first operating system to ship with accessibility options built in, and has developed a variety of tools and platform services aimed at developers. Windows 10 has many built-in options, grouped mainly under the Settings | Ease of Access applet.
You can jump straight to many of the settings applets by running ms-settings:easeofaccess-keyboard or ms-settings:easeofaccess-speechrecognition and so on.
If you don’t need to use assistive technology yourself, it’s good practice to think about how your work might impact people who do – and there’s a tool built into Office applications which will give you tips to make sure your document or email is suitable for users with accessible needs, such as having the contents read out by the machine, or making sure there’s adequate contrast in text colours, for improved reading ease.
The Check Accessibility option on the Review tab in Office apps like Word and Outlook, should be run just as you’d check the spelling of a document when you think it’s finished. The tool will give you a series of recommendations with guidance as to why it may be better to change aspects of the document. Not every one will be viable – you may want to have images in a particular place on the page, for example, rather than just in-line with text – but many are quick to correct.
If you’ve inserted graphics or charts, for example, then it’s worth adding “Alt Text” to describe what it is, so screen-reading software can read your description of what it is. Right-click on your image to add the text, or have the PC generate a description for you – sometimes with amusing results…
Thanks to Jon Morris for providing feedback on ToW #554, about email signatures – Jon rightly points out that many of us have tiny logos (Twitter, LinkedIn etc) or other icons in our email .sig, but don’t have Alt Text on them.
One call to action would be update your own sig to add Alt Text, or to mark the images as decorative so screen reader software ignores them.
For more tips on how to write documents which are more accessible, see guidance from Microsoft or from the University of Washington. Some resources for developers or web page designers from the UK Gov, with plenty of links to other sources – Testing for accessibility – Service Manual – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk).
Ever since the demise of Windows Mobile and the collateral damage caused to Microsoft’s previous Universal Windows Platform apps strategy by not having a universal platform any more, their future has been in some doubt. In fact, since late 2018, it was reported that the Office “Mobile” apps for Windows were being de-prioritized in favour of the desktop variants (with the exception of OneNote), and separate mobile apps for the surviving mobile platforms.
If you search the Microsoft Store app on PC, you won’t find any trace of the Office mobile apps for Windows PCs any more but if you want to see what the future looked like from a point 5+ years in the past, you can still access the direct links get the UWP apps for Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
In these enlightened days, Microsoft builds quite a lot of apps for iOS and Android, more especially the latter since it has a larger number of users (and seems to be growing its share in key markets) as well as being more open when it comes to the both the end-user and developer experience (though Apple may be changing its tack a little).
The app brings together Word, Excel and PowerPoint, but also adds a bunch of other related things – like Sticky Notes, and some related and useful technology like the ability to manage PDF files, extract text from an image and more.
The Microsoft To Do desktop and mobile applications and services (all available from https://todo.microsoft.com/) had a major update recently, which included being slightly renamed. Instead of “Microsoft To-Do”, the core app is now simply “Microsoft To Do”, and it has a new logo (well done if you noticed)… instead of a blocky light-blue and white tick on a blue background, it’s a slightly rounded and shaded blue tick on white background.
Still, To[-]Do’s functionality has stepped forward greatly since its first release a couple of years back, taking more than a few leaves from the Wunderlist app that preceded it. The new v2 of the To Do app includes background images that can be shown behind task lists, including one of the Berlin Television Tower which was synonymous with Wunderlist.
After Microsoft’s acquisition of 6wunderkinder (the company that made Wunderlist), it was announced that, at some stage, the Wunderlist application would be retired but still there’s no confirmed date or anything, with back-end engineering apparently taking a good bit longer than was first expected.
When the To-Do app was launched, it was a somewhat poorer cousin. Now, the story is that To Do v2 has enough of the functionality of Wunderlist, and lots of new capabilities (such as Cortana integration), that it’s time for Wunderlist users to transition.
The founder of 6wunderkinder has taken to Twitter to offer to buy back Wunderlist before Microsoft shuts the service down. It remains to be seen if the offer is being considered or not…
Back in the olden days of computing, wage slaves sat in front of terminals with black backgrounds and lurid green text writing. The advent of the graphical user interface relieved this tyranny with a paper-white background from a bitmapped screen to write your WYSIWYG text, to showcase colourful graphics (and Fonts!).
Fast forward 30+ years and it seems every app and OS is running away from black text / white backgrounds, and heading for monochrome graphics and oppressive white text on a black background again.
Using Dark Mode, either in apps or in the operating system on your computer or phone, promises a variety of benefits – less noticeable flickering, reducing eye strain, avoiding bright lights in a dark environment, perhaps better readability and therefore productivity, and even lower energy costs.
Dark Mode has existed in Windows for a while – but ultimately, apps need to support the theme, too, and more and more are doing so – like new Edge browser, or Office apps (where you can set the Office Theme).
The announcement on Microsoft 365 functionality adds for August 2019 highlighted additional Dark Mode support coming to Outlook mobile apps and Outlook.com, saying, “Dark Mode is not only easier on the eyes and may extend battery life, it also enables you to comfortably continue using your device in places where the default bright mode isn’t appropriate, like darkened airplanes and movie theaters.”
So kids, next time you want to go and watch a movie & catch up on your email, make sure you’ve Dark Mode on!
Optical Character Recognition is one of those technologies which has gone from being just-about-possible at great expense and hassle, to so mainstream that people just assume it will work flawlessly, all in a relatively few years. Numerous companies offer OCR services or addins to line-of-business systems which help to prepare printed data for easier consumption – scanning invoices for example.
Consumers tend to use OCR in other ways; combined with language translation, you can point your phone at a foreign menu or sign and it may be able to help you understand. In OneNote, if you have captured an image (maybe through the clipper addin from your browser), then it can extract the text from that picture – not always perfectly, and not necessarily well-formatted, but it’s probably quicker than re-typing everything.
A recent addition to the iOS version of Excel is the ability to scan a table of printed data and use OCR plus a bit of tweaking, to import the data into the spreadsheet. See more here. The same functionality was first made available on Android a couple of months earlier …
Start with the grid capture icon on the toolbar of a new spreadsheet, and then use the camera to highlight the area of a document that you’re interested in – the UI will be familiar to anyone who uses Office Lens, as the same anti-skewing technology is used to prepare the “document” for importing.
Then the OCR goes to work and tries to lay out the data as closely as possible to its source – obviously, your accuracy will be improved by having a well-lit and clear original document, and you’ll get to tweak the contents in context of seeing the OCR’d data and the scan at the same time, before committing to insert it.
We’re all used to Windows Update or other software automatically downloading and installing updates (on phones, TVs, cars…). Sometimes the updates are at more of a leisurely pace than keen users might want though occasionally the recipients demand to hold back the updates until they elect to install.
The Windows 10 October 2018 is now being pushed to (nearly) everyone, though business users will have the option of pausing Windows Updates in case they want to enact a temporary delay for some particular reason – you’re about to go on a trip, for example – though it’s not meant as a centralised policy control: IT departments have other ways to do that. Windows 10 Homes users will soon get the ability to defer updates for up to 35 days, too.
In the Microsoft Store app, for example, go to the ellipsis menu on the top right. You’ll see Downloads and updates, which will force the check for updates for all your installed Store apps. Even if you’ve turned on the automatic app update checks, it’s worth taking a look periodically as some of the apps you use most often might have updates pending.
If you find that most of the stuff you’re offered is updates to boring apps that you don’t use, then you could just wait for them to fetch their own in time. If, however, you spot an individual update to an app that you know you want to have the latest version of, then click the down arrow to the right to get it right away, or click the app name to look at its page in the Store and see what’s new.
Of course, non-Store apps may still offer their own updates directly – to check for updates to the Microsoft Office suite, for example, try going into Word (or Excel or PowerPoint if those are your most-used Office apps) and from the start screen that offers a few previously-opened files, templates you’ll never use etc, look to the bottom-left and you’ll see Account.
Click Account to go to the product information page, which will let you check for updates, show you the current installed version number of the the application, and maybe even let you sign up for more updates through the Insider program.
Or check the View Updates option at any time, and it’ll take you to the web to see what the latest updates contain.
For a while now, new PCs have been installed with an app that “encouraged” users to install and use Office. Even users with Office already installed sometimes complained that Get Office was nagging them to, er, Get Office.
Get Office became “My Office”, which was a lot more useful in the sense that it was showing documents you used etc, but its main aim appeared to still be to help you find and launch Office apps, or buy them if you’re not already using them.
The latest incarnation – simply called “Office” – moves the game on a whole lot more. For one, it’s a portal into all the Office documents you work with on your machine or online, allowing you to search content across not just the docs themselves – so you can search for documents in your most-recently-used lists, something that the File dialog in Word/Excel/PowerPoint annoyingly won’t do.
The search bar also reaches across SharePoint sites you use, OneDrive locations you have and even brings in the global address list so you can get to people details really quickly, including a really fast org chart ability.
The new Office app will be delivered automatically for a lot of people as it will replace the My Office and Get Office apps in due course; if you’d like to check it out sooner, go to the Store.
Like just about every other productivity technique, “Mind Mapping” has vociferous proponents and those who’ve tried it but never quite made it stick. The general idea is to try to represent a complex but related series of thoughts and topics onto a diagram that helps to organise them, and to aid recall. Mind maps are perhaps more useful for the person doing the mapping as a way of sorting their own brain out, than as a means of communicating to other people or even to record those thoughts for much later consumption.
Like writing a status report, the act of doing the report or compiling the map prompts valuable activity more than the resulting artefact which might never be read. Research has shown that more visually oriented people are likely to get more out of mind mapping, and using a mind map to try to remember stuff has a fairly short shelf life.
If you’ve not tried mind mapping, the simplest way is to start with a blank sheet of paper and a pen. Read some more here about the concepts. Or here, realising that the site is basically trying to sell you mind mapping software. There’s a more balanced view of different software packages, here.
You don’t need to pay for your mind mapping software, though… OneNote could be a great way of doing it, especially if you have a PC with a stylus. There are a few 3rd party addins to OneNote (desktop version) that provide additional functionality for mind mapping, though the same don’t necessarily work with the Modern App version – something that’s been picked up on the User Voice forums.
If you’ve got Visio on your PC, you could try the Brainstorm template, using Visio’s core strength of creating and associating shapes, moving them around, hyperlinking between them as appropriate and so on.
This functional approach can be a bit too structured and formal, some people preferring a much more freehand, flowing kind of mind map to basically do a brain dump. Maybe a good way of publishing an already-sketched mind map?
There are some more brainstorming tips and tricks for Visio 2016 here.
Another option is to try some specific mind mapping software – there are some very good examples of such in the Microsoft Store. One particularly good app is Mind Maps Pro, which is free for a few days (as of end of June 2018 – install it now; even if you don’t try it right away, it’ll save you a good few £/$/€/etc as and when you give it a go).
The app has simple hierarchical mapping features, and some freehand support – including Ink – with easy additions of structure, auto-layout and the like – it’s a great way to creating a mind map on Windows. It can automatically sync your maps to OneDrive, too, and export to PDF/PNG.
This might be a very old-Microsoft culture thing, but alias names have always been a relatively big deal within the company; not an alias in the sense of a nom de plume or some alter ego, but a name curiously given to mean your login name.
Before enlightenment, Microsofties were emailed simply by sending to firstname.lastname@example.org – and still are, so even if the primary mail address is email@example.com, you could still mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org, or whatever their alias is.
In a company with a handful of people, it was easy to remember such a name for when you wanted to drop them an email, but with hundreds of thousands of mail addresses, you might need more room – when Exchange Server came out in 1996, it supported 64 characters in the alias name, though oddly, Microsoft has never embraced longer than 8-character aliases.
Back in the day, your mailbox was a folder on a Xenix server, then an MS Mail postoffice, and the folder names were restricted by the 8.3 filename format. There are probably too many legacy systems that also have an employee name represented by their 8-letter alias, and it still kinda works.
Some people at Microsoft still talk about an email distribution list as an “alias” – eg. “TAKE ME OFF THIS ALIAS!!” as a Reply-All (as opposed to a little “r”) to the occasional mail storms that amazingly still happen. They’re wrong – those are Distribution Lists (DLs) or maybe more correctly, Distribution Groups (DGs).
But the true “alias” lives on, even if the Skypey “Contact Card” UI in Outlook does its best to not show you what someone’s alias is (but you can usually still get to Open Outlook Properties, which shows you the traditional Outlook address book view, with alias in the very top section). Lots of reports from Microsoft’s internal systems will refer to an employee using their alias name, so it often helps if you can decipher an alias into the person behind it.
Resolving an alias to a name one-at-a-time is all very well, but when looking at a column of alias names in some spreadsheet, it’s a bit of a palaver to turn each of the FORENAMS into something meaningful.
Fear not, worthy reader, for a solution is to hand.
This can be handy if you’re building Excel reports and want to add names to a table instead of aliases – you could sort the list of aliases alphabetically, run them through the resolver, and then reference the table with a VLOOKUP formula so you could hide the column of aliases from your report and show instead the derived real names.