Diaper Genies for analysts (i.e. simple tools and tricks to help you work better)

With a new baby, you come to appreciate the small inventions that make a big difference. The Baby Bjorn, the Diaper Genie, the baby monitor: these are simple, well-designed technologies that can save your sanity.

Which got me to thinking: What are the Diaper Genies for data analysts? What are the little tools that solve nagging problems in a light, simple, intuitive way? I put together a starter list below of a few of my favorites. The thing that’s amazing about these tools and tricks is that they have changed my usage behaviors. By simply eliminating a few clicks or keystrokes, I work differently and more efficiently.

  • MWSnap is a bit of freeware by Mirek Wojtowicz that lets you easily capture images on your screen. Pre-MWSnap, I often found myself using the Windows Ctrl-PrtSc function when making presentations. Then I would have to chop down the full screen capture in an image editing program. This application lets you grab just the part of the screen you need, then copy and paste it right into PowerPoint.
  • Keyboard shortcuts in Excel. Keyboarding both saves you time and expands your ability to work effectively with large data sets. There are two kinds of keyboarding that we teach: 1) using the Alt key with letters to navigate the menu structure (e.g. Alt-i-r to insert rows, Alt-e-s-v to paste special). 2) using the Ctrl and Shift keys with the arrows to move around and grab blocks of data. See Chris’ keyboarding game. Everyone rolls their eyes when we harp on keyboarding as an essential element to being effective with Excel; I’ve seen too much value from the skill to care.
  • Excel Pivot Tables."What’s easy about PivotTables?!," you say. Admittedly, this tool doesn’t exactly fall under the category of simple and quick to learn. In fact, we are still looking for an intuitive way to teach Pivot Tables. Here are a few good tutorials I’ve come across. In my experience, you have to put up with a short and mildly painful learning curve; it’s worth the trip. I’ve seen many analysts who still rely on vlookup functions when a simple Pivot Table would let them manipulate their data far more quickly. We are developing a post that offers our tips and tricks on working with Pivot Tables.
  • Voice IM (e.g. Google Talk, Skype). There is a form of conversation that requires less focused discussion than a phone call but more verbal interaction than instant messaging. This is where the voice talk features on many IM clients become valuable. Often Chris and I will open a Google Talk call while we work on something together. Long silences suddenly feel acceptable since it’s free.
  • Windows Alt-Tab. This key combination gives you the ability to flip between applications and can be a huge time saver. I’ve found it especially useful when I’m pulling data from application and dropping it into another.
  • Faster web browsing with Firefox. Mozilla’s Firefox browser touts its security, pop-up blocking, and extensions as differentiators. The features I care about are those that help me manage the information better. Ctrl-f gives a ’find’ box in the bottom of your browser where you can start typing instantly. It jumps you right to the part of the page with your word/phrase. Tabbed browsing and the ability to jump between tabs (Ctrl-PgUp or -PgDn), close tabs (Ctrl-w), or open a new tabs (Ctrl-t) lets me work with half a dozen web sites at the same time.
  • Google Desktop. The new version has a feature where you can press Ctrl twice and it pops a search box. Not only is this a better tool for finding files than Windows offers, but it can quickly find applications. You may never have to go to that Windows Start button again!

We don’t claim to be productivity gurus like Merlin Mann of 43 folders or the folks at Lifehack, but I think you’ll appreciate how these tools seem to scratch an itch then mercifully leave you alone. They give you a sense of control that is about the opposite of MS Word deciding how your bullets should look.