Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

Using TextExpander to conquer email

Posted on 11 May 2011 34 comments

Article illustration for Using TextExpander to conquer email

Let me get this out there right away: I hate email. Seriously, I can’t stand it. It’s not that I have any particular problem with the medium; in fact, I’m not even one of those people that believes it should be replaced with a radical alternative. I despise it because it eats up so much of my time. It’s nothing to do with the way email works; it’s purely down to the volume of email I receive.

So when a tool comes along to help me get email out of the way a lot quicker, I’m excited. Without a doubt, TextExpander is that tool. I’ve been using it for just over a month and I honestly don’t know how I could now live without it.

TextExpander isn’t new. It’s been around for years and I’d managed to completely miss it. I think in the back of my mind I was aware of it, but had assumed it was something to do with a code editor. I only came across it properly when reading Frank’s post about his Mac set-up. From the first hour of using the app, I knew it would change the way I write and — most importantly — allow me to finally conquer email.

So, for the benefit of those who have never considered it — and for Sarah, for whom I promised to write this article — I’m going to explain why this is an essential app for anyone who receives a high volume of email, or regularly has to write similar responses, or makes dumb typos, or just wants to get a bit more time for the important things in life, like quaffing delicious Belgian beers.

Semi-canned responses

My completely non-scientific research has found that the number of times one writes the same thing is explicitly tied to the number of emails one receives. In other words, it’s the law of averages. Like many people, I find myself writing the same thing over and over and over again, with very subtle alterations. I’m not talking about ‘canned responses’ per se; there’s usually something a bit different about each instance, whether that be responding to new client work requests, asking potential clients to clarify timeline and budget, or respond to 8 Faces customers whose copy never arrived. About 90% of each message is usually the same, but requires some element of personalisation (which is important to good customer service, anyway). It’s in these subtle differences that TextExpander excels.

Google Mail has recently introduced a canned response feature, and although useful, I find it resembles my old system of saving multiple draft emails, the content of which can be copied and pasted into new emails. But TextExpander is much smarter than that. At its simplest level, it can save time and typing by pumping out commonly-used phrases. For instance, typing my ‘ssorry’ trigger will render:

Screenshot

But where it really comes into its own is with dynamic ‘fill in’ fields. Typing ‘eenquiry’ will trigger a pop-up that has my message pre-written, as you might expect, but with text fields for filling in the client’s name and project title, like so:

Screenshot

The name fields are linked together because they both use the fill:Name variable, so once I’ve inputted ‘Jon’, for example, in the first name field, the second one will automatically be populated. The TextExpander content for that response looks like this:

Screenshot

Let’s say our fictional potential client has forgotten to mention his budget and timescale. (A client forgetting to mention budget and timeline? Surely not!) Then, I place my cursor just before the last sentence, type my trigger text ‘bbudget’ and TextExpander renders ‘Do you have an approximate budget and timeline in mind for this project?’ Perfect. Now, I want to sign off with my professional signature, so I type ‘ssig2’ and out comes the signature with my links and what not.

So, to summarise, I’ve typed ‘eenquiry’, ‘bbudget’, and ‘ssig2’, plus two words for the fill-in fields: ‘Jon’ and ‘Mapalong’. Five words total. And this is the email TextExpander has composed for me:

Screenshot

We’re so winning at email. Tigerblood!

Better email signatures

In the example above, you will have noticed my mention of signatures. Although Mail and other apps allow multiple signatures, it’s much, much easier to generate your signatures using TextExpander. I used to find myself having my full, professional signature on every email, and then manually deleting the links and what not when writing to friends and family. What a massive waste of time. With TextExpander, I have ‘ssig1’ trigger my personal signature (a simple ‘Best, [line break] ~ Elliot’), ‘ssig2’ trigger my professional one (as above), and ‘ccheers’ trigger a signature I use when all the response needs to say is this:

Screenshot

It feels like it’s been years since I last actually typed my name.

Beyond email

Although I’ve focused exclusively on email here, TextExpander is system-wide, so you can use it for any program that accepts text entry, which means it’s perfect for correcting typos! If, like me, you’re constantly typing ‘teh’ instead of ‘the’ and ‘thnaks’ instead of ‘thanks’, those days are over. And, because it only replaces words you specify — and with the words you specify — it’s worlds away from the frustrating auto-complete we’re used to on iOS. (Speaking of which, an iOS version of TextExpander is now available, too.)

Another benefit of it being system-wide is that it’s perfect for code snippets. Virtually every code editor has snippet functionality, but defining your snippets in TextExpander means you can jump between text editors — say, TextMate on your desktop and Harmony’s in-browser editor — and still have all your snippets working.

In conclusion: go and buy it!

I’ve encountered a few people are a little turned off by the price of TextExpander. At $34.95, some feel that it’s a little expensive for an auto-complete tool, but if you judge your apps’ worth on how much time they save you, this is probably one of the best software investments you’ll ever make. We’re probably only talking about saving a few seconds with each trigger, but those seconds add up. Use TextExpander for a 30 minute email session, and you’ll instantly see how much quicker you’re getting through your replies.

There is one downside to using TextExpander, though: as soon as you well your friends that you’re using it, they’ll assume they’re the victim of your auto-completes!

(Note: It’s worth noting that Typinator is another alternative to TextExpander that essentially does the exact same thing. I haven’t tried it, so if you have, please feel free to leave your thoughts below.)

34 comments

  1. Rob Such

    Rob Such

    11 May 2011 @ 01:18PM #

    You didn’t mention the huge price tag (£20.99) I pointed out to you the other day!

    ;-)

  2. Leslie Jensen-Inman

    Leslie Jensen-Inman

    11 May 2011 @ 01:19PM #

    Sitting at inbox 490 and I was just thinking, “there has to be a better way!” Checked Twitter and saw your post. Love when the universe works like that.

  3. Dan Griffey

    Dan Griffey

    11 May 2011 @ 01:31PM #

    Surely that Email replacement link should be /wave and not /buzz – Buzz is a social network.

  4. Elliot Jay Stocks

    Elliot Jay Stocks

    11 May 2011 @ 02:19PM #

    @ Rob: Pah! I did mention the price! And yes, your response was well and truly in my mind as I wrote that ‘some feel that it’s a little expensive for an auto-complete tool’ sentence! ;)

    @ Leslie: Me too! Hope this helps you get to the bottom of those 490 emails!

    @ Dan: My apologies. Yes, it should’ve been Wave, not Buzz. Corrected.

  5. Matt Convente

    Matt Convente

    11 May 2011 @ 02:19PM #

    Thanks for the in-depth review of TextExpander. I’ve considered purchasing it, but never went through. I don’t receive nearly the volume of email you do, but it would be nice to cut down my email time regardless.

    How long did it take you to memorize the expander shortcodes you set up? I imagine there would be a small learning curve as you add them, so any input you can provide is appreciated.

  6. Rob Such

    Rob Such

    11 May 2011 @ 02:26PM #

    Sorry, my bad. Let you off I guess.

  7. Simon Clayson

    Simon Clayson

    11 May 2011 @ 02:39PM #

    I don’t know what I’d do without it. If I ever have to type my email address in full I get annoyed.

    I’ve got “llorem” as one of my snippets, but there’s some great tips in here – never thought of email sigs.

  8. macfixer

    macfixer

    11 May 2011 @ 02:37PM #

    You forgot about nested snippets. You can have set them up like dominos, and have one snippet fire off others. For example, my “tticket” (my boilerplate email regarding your help desk ticket) snippet contains the “ggreet” snippet (which says ‘good morning name’ or ‘good afternoon name’ depending on what time it is).

    Linking snippets has greatly reduced my typing, which helps the old carpal tunnels.

    Cheers!

    //kyle

    p.s.: Yeah, I stole your ‘ccheers’ snippet ;-)

  9. Evan Mullins

    Evan Mullins

    11 May 2011 @ 02:48PM #

    Thanks for sharing! This does look like something worth looking into. Seems like something that any computer should be able to do out of the box now that I think of it. =) I can really see that once you get used to it, you’d never go back. I can even see this a helping with programming, just put all my snippets in and they’d be ready to go maybe even use fill-in fields for instance names and/or selectors! Have you had success doing that?

  10. Michael

    Michael

    11 May 2011 @ 02:51PM #

    Keyboard Maestro is another great app that does basic test replacement and so much more. I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it can do, but as well as email sigs and the like mentioned here, I’ve used it to create keyboard shortcuts that resize and reposition windows on my 27" iMac screen. It’s brilliant.

  11. Peter Mahnke

    Peter Mahnke

    11 May 2011 @ 04:23PM #

    I have used it for years and it has truly saved me hours of typing.

    I wanted to mention, it is also great for remembering things like accounting codes, phone numbers, code snippets, urls and other things you look-up all the time.

  12. Teresa

    Teresa

    11 May 2011 @ 05:26PM #

    It not only works for email, but on most every other application you use on your mac – basically anywhere you enter text.

    For instance I have snippets to fill out the info on myself to leave a comment here, I have snippets that auto correct when I do forget and type my name – I invariably switch the last 2 letters – plus a few other words I can’t quite seem to make my fingers work on. There are many uses other than email, although for most people email is the primary use case. Have fun with it. I love it. And yes, for me it was worth the price.

  13. Moncef Belyamani

    Moncef Belyamani

    11 May 2011 @ 05:34PM #

    Like Michael, I also use Keyboard Maestro and I highly recommend it. It is so much more versatile than TextExpander and is about the same price. However, you can get it for 20% off with my affiliate link, as I mentioned in this blog post: http://chezmoncef.com/post/4782229297/save-time-with-keyboard-maestro-and-applescript

  14. marc thiele

    marc thiele

    11 May 2011 @ 09:14PM #

    I also am one of the guys who managed to ignore this app way too long. A few weeks ago Mike Jones, a friend from UK, mentioned this app again when we had a look at each others menu bar of our machines. And since he mentioned it again I also and really do think “How the hell did I manage to live without this tool?”. It rocks your day all day. Wether you write (emails, articles for magazines etc) or work (as you stated most of the apps have snippet support, but these work cross app). In any app you will get to the point where you think: I am using this quite often, I should add a snippet to TE.

    In short: I love it! ;)=

  15. Jonathan Nicol

    Jonathan Nicol

    12 May 2011 @ 04:56AM #

    What a flipping great idea for a piece of software. Sadly I’m not a Mac user, but a quick search turned up Breevy, a very solid looking PC alternative witha similar price tag. Its website doesn’t do the software any favours, but I’m mightily impressed by the trial version.

  16. Leslie

    Leslie

    12 May 2011 @ 08:34PM #

    I could definitely use this. I send some of the same emails several times a day. Typically I cut and paste, but this sounds like a time saver. I think the price is touch high, but I’ll probably pull the trigger anyway.

  17. Sarah Parmenter

    Sarah Parmenter

    13 May 2011 @ 09:09AM #

    Perfect! This is just what I was looking for, I’ve been using it over the past few days and you’re right, it is a game changer – just having my address, number and biog saved has helped immensely. Let alone the amount of times it has changed “necessary” to the correct spelling for me… :)

  18. Kim Røen

    Kim Røen

    13 May 2011 @ 11:12PM #

    I too love this tool. You should check out Merlin Mann’s places of writing, where he has shared some crazy TE stuff over the years. Insane.

  19. Grant Steele

    Grant Steele

    14 May 2011 @ 01:17AM #

    This is perfect! I’ve seen this app mentioned by name a million times and have always scanned past it thinking it was something like TextWrangler. I’ll be spending some time today on this baby.

  20. JPablo Lomeli

    JPablo Lomeli

    14 May 2011 @ 03:06PM #

    I agree this is a great tool, and for those not in mac but in windows you should give PhraseExpress a go, it’s free for personal use too. http://www.phraseexpress.com/

  21. Marco Pivetta

    Marco Pivetta

    16 May 2011 @ 03:06PM #

    That makes sense!
    I think I should use it on blog comments too! :D
    Thank you for introducing us this tool! =)

  22. Jakub

    Jakub

    16 May 2011 @ 03:14PM #

    You can get TextExpander and other cool stuff (including Keyboard Maestro, Mail Act-On, PathFinder) for $29.99. Check out this promo bundle: http://bit.ly/jPGyVX

  23. Joel

    Joel

    16 May 2011 @ 09:18PM #

    Just learned of this post today via One Thing Well…also happened to see the bundle offered in the Productive Macs Bundle today. http://www.productivemacs.com/ It includes TextExpander and Keyboard Maestro as part of the bundle. I already have Typinator but maybe I’ll give it a second look.

  24. Grigory

    Grigory

    17 May 2011 @ 10:10AM #

    The best feature of TextExpander is its shell script support.

    This is my feature suggestion template (fsugg): http://mfwb.us/EALp (that “n” is “/n”, a line break. Droplr removed it).
    And this is my anti-lorem-ipsum powered by Fillerati: http://mfwb.us/ztjD

    I also have a folder called “Anti-spam” that replaces “iPod” to “¡Pod” and the same for iPhone and iPad (only in Twitterrific) so I get less @mention-spam in Twitter.

    And TextExpander replaces three dots with an ellipsis sign (…) for me. Useful for saving space in tweets ;-)

  25. Joel

    Joel

    17 May 2011 @ 12:00PM #

    Just learned of this post today via One Thing Well…also happened to see the bundle offered in the Productive Macs Bundle today. http://www.productivemacs.com/ It includes TextExpander and Keyboard Maestro as part of the bundle. I already have Typinator but maybe I’ll give it a second look.

  26. Hans verschooten

    Hans verschooten

    17 May 2011 @ 12:21PM #

    If you’re interested in TextExpander and Keyboard Maestro and a few other productivity apps, there is a bundle on Productive Macs (http://www.productivemacs.com/a/635100 – disclaimer this is an affiliate link.)

  27. Stefan Rudersdorf

    Stefan Rudersdorf

    17 May 2011 @ 01:10PM #

    I use Textexpander to resolve some relative dates for me.
    So for example, when I type “yyesterday” I´ll get yesterday´s date ( the syntax is %@-1D%e. %B %Y – a german date format. You can easily customize that. Find more about that here: http://unicode.org/reports/tr35/#Date_Format_Patterns).

    I have created many of these, like “tomorrow”, “the day before yesterday” and even calendar weeks, so “kw34” becomes “KW 34 (22.8. bis 28.8.2011)”.

    Or “14d+” for getting the date of 2 weeks from now. Huge time saver.

    Over time so many shortcuts have accumulated that I even made some kind of manual for each section. So when I type “Code?” I´ll get a list of the rarely used coding shortcuts that are hard to remember.

    As Jakub and Joel already mentioned: Grab the bundle: http://bit.ly/jPGyVX
    It´s really worth every cent.

  28. GaDo

    GaDo

    17 May 2011 @ 02:11PM #

    Hi

    Do you have a Windows alternative ? (a good alternative. No Phraseexpress)

    Thanks!

  29. Fred Mindlin

    Fred Mindlin

    17 May 2011 @ 02:21PM #

    My favorite text expanding app that I’ve used since way back in System 7 days is TypeIt4Me—at $19.99 it’s a lot cheaper— http://www.typeit4me.com

  30. William Hopkins

    William Hopkins

    17 May 2011 @ 08:32PM #

    I have been using TextExpander pretty often for the past week and am a fan. I, too, was turned off by the price tag but got it in an affiliate bundle for a pretty significant discount. I’ve also tried (and like) Snippets, an app from Conceited Software. It’s similar but has fewer features and less history, but it’s also cheaper ($10).

    A few people have also mentioned the Productive Macs bundle—I just purchased it and found it to be well worth the money, especially since TextExpander by itself is $5 more than the whole bundle. If you’re considering TextExpander, definitely give the bundle a shot.

  31. meira

    meira

    17 May 2011 @ 11:01PM #

    I use the Snippets app, it cost me $12.00 and does everything text expander does. Way easier on your wallet! :D

  32. Suleiman Leadbitter

    Suleiman Leadbitter

    18 May 2011 @ 09:57PM #

    I have been using Text Expander for a while now and used to use Typinator before. It really saves so much time, especially for things like email address, twitter url etc.

    What I have started using it for now is with the dynamic fill in bit, I use that for CSS with things that have vendor prefix.

    ie:

    -moz-border-radius: 5px;
    -ms-border-radius: 5px;
    -o-border-radius: 5px;
    -webkit-border-radius: 5px;
    border-radius: 5px;

    Now the only there needed to be input is one number ‘5’ – You get the idea. There are loads of these you can do :)

  33. Flavio

    Flavio

    22 May 2011 @ 12:21PM #

    I know the tool since long, thanks to the screencasts by Don McAllister i was following before switching to the Mac few years ago.

    My turn-off (until now) have been:

    • price tag: i’d value an app like this at 20€/$/£, since…
    • manual fill-in: yes it is great to define your own snippets but i feel i’m doing all of the work. When i’m configuring the software i’ll certainly forget stuff and i tend to think i will always forget to update the collection. I’d justify the actual price tag if the system was COUPLED by an auto-recognition, something that learns your patterns and make some propositions

    that said, after your review i’ll check if there’s a demo.

    On a different matter, i don’t want to sound anal but in a post speaking (also) of typos, to find some feels weird :p

    Last thing: scrolling on your site is very sluggish :(

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