It was 2001, and I was sitting there with my arm in a sling feeling sorry for myself. I had committed to delivering a strategy document for a key client, and it would be impossible to type it one-handed in the time available. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I could say that my injury resulted from some kind of heroic or adventurous act. The truth is that I had severed an artery in my little finger during an incident washing the dishes. Don’t ask.
Necessity is the mother of invention
While I was considering whether I could bribe or coerce someone into becoming my typist for two weeks, a colleague popped his head around the door and I told him my tale of woe. After he’d finished laughing, he said: “I don’t know if it’s of any use, but I bought this dictation software a couple of months ago. I thought it was a bit rubbish – I couldn’t get it to work – but you are welcome to have it and give it a try if you are that desperate”. I was, so took him up on the offer.
The next day, there was yet more mirth as people heard me sitting in my office talking about white rabbits, magic potions and mad hatters. It sounded like I had finally lost it. Of course, what I was up to was Dragon training, reading excerpts from Alice in Wonderland. Back in those days, the ‘out-of-the-box’ experience with Dragon (version 5 on Windows 98) was, in the words of my eloquent colleague, “a bit rubbish”. Despite the promises in the product literature, it took literally hours of training to get to an acceptable level of dictation accuracy – reading out passages of text so the software could ‘learn’ how you speak.
The early days of speech recognition…
But having got past that hurdle, I then discovered that it wasn’t just Dragon that had to learn. An often-overlooked requirement for success with dictation software is that you yourself need to learn how to dictate. The output from my first couple of days can be summed up in three words: rambling, repetitive and incoherent. But I gradually got the hang of it, thinking about what I wanted to say in advance, then forming sentences in my head before speaking them. Pretty soon I had reached a very respectable level of productivity.
While the mistakes that became affectionately known as ‘dragonisms’ during the review process caused yet more amusement (quite different to normal ‘typos’), the report was finished on time and from that point onwards I was a convert.
…and today’s speech technology miracle
Over the 16 years between then and today, Dragon has become integral to the way I work. In the day-to-day running of an extremely busy professional services company, I dictate everything from proposals, through emails to instant messages. Wearing my other hat as an industry analyst, Dragon is invaluable for rapidly transcribing hand-written briefing and interview notes into something that can be shared with the rest of the team, in a form that they can actually understand.
But I also use Dragon to compose material destined for professional publication. In this respect, I have frequently had to push back against people who say “well it’s fine for internal stuff, but no good for things where the quality of writing really matters”. I would estimate that 60% of the ‘production quality’ writing I do is via Dragon dictation, ranging from blogs like this, though feature articles published on mainstream IT news sites, to highly structured research reports and papers. As for the other 40%, the reason for falling back to pure keyboard input is generally because of the environment I am in – e.g. I like working in coffee shops, frequently author material on the train, and am often taking notes in meetings, at conferences and so on.
The truth is that if you learn to dictate well, provided you aren’t disturbing others or creating a security exposure by saying confidential things out loud surrounded by strangers, then you can use Dragon for pretty much any kind of authoring.
The investment in speech proved to be well worth it
Acknowledging the need for dictation skills, however, is doubly important nowadays. As I sit here dictating this blog on a modern Windows 10 laptop running the latest version of Dragon, I can tell you that getting the software to work effectively is no longer a hurdle. Today you can achieve an acceptable level of accuracy out-of-the-box with about 5-10 minutes of voice training. The trick to achieving ‘super-accuracy’ is then to point Dragon at examples of how you write. This allows it to analyse your style and import words it doesn’t know so it can handle your vocabulary, e.g. in my case, IT industry terms and abbreviations. Nowadays I maintain a folder of finished work for this purpose, so I can go from zero to a fully productive Dragon installation in about 45 minutes – a big chunk of which is waiting for the software to download.
With all this mind, let me finish by saying that as a Dragon evangelist (there, I said it), one of my biggest frustrations over the years has been seeing people try dictation software then abandon it after a short period because they don’t immediately become more productive. This is akin to expecting a child to jump onto a bicycle for the first time and instantly be able to ride it. It isn’t the bike’s fault when they fall off or run into things; it’s lack of basic skill. But most kids get the hang of it pretty quickly, and the same is true of dictation. And just like riding a bike, once you learn to dictate, you enjoy a whole new level of speed and freedom.