Hands Off Training

I am not sure what I expected to happen by using Nuance’s Dragon for Mac voice-to-text software, but I  hoped it would allow me to continue writing.

Due to Multiple Sclerosis I can’t type any longer because my right hand doesn’t have the fine motor skills necessary to type for any longer than five minutes or so. 

I had hoped the software would help make writing possible.

The loss was, and has been, a weird loss and disruption. My hope was that Dragon would indeed “listen, understand, learn and adapt” as their literature said it would to my life and work. (Full disclosure: The folks at Nuance were kind enough to provide me with a complimentary copy for this review.) 

I am reasonably skilled with many common applications (MS Office, desktop design and video software, etc.). Most of my work is done using a 2015 iMac which has a 3.2 GHz Intel Core i5 with 8 GB of memory and runs Sierra 10.12.2; I have an iPhone 6 and two different iPads and am reasonably familiar with Macs and the Apple environment. I bought a set of Sennheiser SC 260 headphones with a microphone for use with Dragon for Mac (they’re awesome).

Unfortunately, I am also using Microsoft Word 2008 (I have never been a huge fan of Word, purchased this version on the cheap and it is now awfully out of date). Finally, I am not a huge Siri user, though I am learning. Both of these elements factor into how Dragon works for me.

Dragon Set-up

Dragon for Mac was very easy to install. I created my user profile, completed the “improve recognition” exercises that come with the software designed to help the user understand best speaking practices while using Dragon and conversely, for Dragon to learn my speech patterns and typical diction.

In no time at all I was dictating emails. Sort of.

Because that’s when the complexity of each process really became hit me. Though the rules for email punctuation, grammar and style are more forgiving, for those who are used to more precise and exacting standards (such as preparing and submitting manuscripts to editors), just the process of composing and sending an email hands-free takes significant time.

In today’s multitasking world, many of us are used to doing lots of things at once and often very quickly. Most of us aren’t thinking of the steps we take when we select and boldface three words, italicize another, start new paragraphs, spell-check and then give it a once over before hitting the send button.

Before my right hand quit working I was unaware of this highly choreographed dance. Removing my hands from it showed me what it takes to make that dance possible.

Taking Dragon For a Spin

The first version of Dragon I received had a glitch which rendered the “guidance” window largely inoperative, meaning I couldn’t see the multitude of pre-programmed commands that were available to me. I used a hard copy PDF cheat sheet that showed me how to make commands by voice that Dragon would understand and do, but it was a cumbersome and frustrating process, and one that has now been eliminated with a recent software update.

And there are a ton of commands. Using Dragon I can compose and dictate emails and documents of course, but I can also open and close software, navigate browsers (in the Mac user case, Safari seems to be the browser of choice which is a drag since I prefer Chrome). Dragon has commands for user-specific software, in my case Safari, Messages, Text Editor, Mac’s Mail and more. It works with Calendar and has “global” commands for common tasks such as “menu navigation”, key commands (press control S for save) and lots more. Say “right angle bracket” and you’ll end up with “>”.

From a voice recognition perspective, Dragon does a pretty fantastic job given the variables at play, including any sorts of changes to my voice or speech pattern, word choice and use, etc. It is especially good at recognizing celebrity names for some reason. But it gets tripped up when there are multiple meanings for the same word (“sale” and “SAIL” for instance) or when there are words that I want to use which are also commands that it understands (the word “copy” for instance). I am currently experimenting with Dragon’s custom auto text entries but have not mastered that function. Yet.

I also took advantage of Dragon’s transcription feature which works pretty well and for anyone who has had to transcribe long recordings it’s a huge improvement. Unfortunately it does not work for multiple voices within the same recording, an equally huge bummer for someone like me who needs to record and transcribe a lot of interviews. Maybe with some work and experimentation I can figure out how the feature may be more effective and useful for my needs.

And time and use are important considerations. Dragon for Mac has plenty of nuances); sometimes a request for a new line is met with the word “new” on a new line and sometimes a requested second “new line” doesn’t happen. Sometimes a command for “all caps” works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes Dragon adds an extra space when starting a new line, sometimes it doesn’t. That may be user error on my part or just an idiosyncrasy that needs tweaked (when I said “tweaked” Dragon mistook me and launched Twitter instead ).

A request for a new line in Mail sometimes results in an initial capitalization on the new line. Sometimes it does not. Again, is it me or is it Dragon? It has also taken more than a little time trying to understand how to make commands such as “proofread this document” work. But it may be that I am not asking Dragon to do it using the correct command.

The application itself can be a little skittish. Dragon crashed multiple times as I wrote the bulk of this review (most within Pages). While this is a little bit extreme (I’ve gone several days without it crashing at all), the software does seem to be on the touchy side, and users would be wise to save their work frequently (of course Dragon includes key commands to help). In fairness to Dragon, it’s also possible that I am not using it correctly, don’t have the right software to support it, etc. On the plus side it does a nice job of self launching report emails’s to Dragon’s tech support.

But the biggest glitch for me was finding the right word processing software to use with Dragon. My ancient version of Microsoft Word was extraordinarily slow when running using Dragon, so slow that I worried  it was doom looping and as I went to force quit, finally, the words that I had just dictated crept onto the  screen. At that point I was concerned that I would not be able to use Dragon at all since I need a decent word processing application in order to write.

Taming the Dragon

For me the bottom line is that using Dragon (perhaps any voice recognition) is as much a developed skill as it is using a specific piece of software. Think about it. Dragon is like having a digital assistant that must work very, very closely with each user in order to learn his or her unique style, vocabulary and word choice and also execute very specific commands. In that sense it is a collaborative process and like all collaborations, the investment of time and patience is critical.

A few years ago I wrote a piece for a nationwide literacy campaign bemoaning the fact that boys generally do not read as well as girls do. In the research for that story  I learned that girls seem to be able to reach a state of “flow” more readily while reading than boys. “Flow”, as I understood it, is a state of being in which everything else in one’s mind seems to disappear save for a very specific focus (in reading’s case, comprehension), enabling superior outcomes. Sort of like hitting a really good golf shot (though I personally have never experienced that).

But for many of us, reaching flow within our digital world has to happen pretty quickly in order to keep up with the demands and distractions of so many alerts, requests, instant messages, emails, etc. The transition to “hands-free” digital interaction and flow doesn’t happen overnight. I am old enough to have used a typewriter for professional purposes and for a writer like me, not typing is an unsettling process.

Dragon touts its ability to allow writers to “think out loud”. Doing that by voice versus the synergy between thinking and typing and feel is a significantly different process for me. It’s sort of like trying to play a musical instrument by telling the instrument what notes you want to play versus playing the instrument itself in order to create the notes. There is a significant disruption and the flow is simply harder to achieve. Not impossible, just harder and right now, much slower.

Dragon comes with some instructional exercises, but again, we’re talking about complex processes including dictation, commands, spelling, proofreading, creative development and writing. Real world, real time learning is a given. My suggestion to other Dragon users is to develop a systematic approach that allows you to work your way through shorter, less complex and deadline-free projects that will help you master the intricacies of the application and then work your way up to larger, longer and more complex projects, and if possible without the pressure of a deadline. I would also recommend familiarizing themselves with the dictation commands as deeply as possible as they will be immediately useful and encourage users to trust their intuition as they use Dragon more frequently.

And I can tell that the more I use Dragon the more readily (and accurately) it responds to me. Sometimes I try to speak sentences just as fast as I can just to see how much Dragon absorbs and how much it gets correctly. It’s a fun game and the more I use Dragon the better we get at it. I say “we” because I play an important role in how well Dragon works; hesitation kills and Dragon works far better when I speak with continuity and certainty.

Nothing succeeds like success. The better we get at it the more I want to use Dragon and the more confident I am it will meet most of my needs and that I can be successful using it. I can also tell that at some point I will find a new type of flow without typing. It it will likely be different than before but that doesn’t mean it can’t be as good or maybe even better. And who could hope for anything more?

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