One year with Elgato Stream Deck – Six Colors

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I’ve been using an Elgato Stream Deck for over a year now. It’s a USB device that offers a grid of buttons with a display underneath, so each button can be labeled with an icon and/or text that you specify. The goal of the Stream Deck is to make esoteric actions on your computer easier by letting you place them on dedicated keys with custom artwork, so you’ll always know how to press the blue button instead of typing Command-Shift-Option. -3.

I was initially quite skeptical about the Stream Deck. I have a perfectly nice keyboard full of keys to map commands to. Why not just memorize these keyboard shortcuts?

And yet, after using a Stream Deck Mini that I bought from Target on a whim for a few months, I decided to upgrade to the full-size Stream Deck. Turns out, yes, the concept of wiring commands I could never remember from the keyboard shortcuts, bringing to the fore all the macros, shortcuts, and scripts that I spent hours building and that I quickly forgot, was worth it. I had gone from a skeptic to a convert, and it only took a few months and a bunch of lessons learned.

Ergonomics matters

It may not look like it, but the Stream Deck is basically a weird little keyboard. And it shares a few key features with a keyboard: ergonomics are vitally important, and everyone’s ergonomics will be different. I have a lot of friends who place their Stream Decks on their desks, front and center, under their monitor. That would make it easier to see, but I would need to reach for my keyboard tray to press any of the buttons.

Instead, my Stream Deck lives on my keyboard tray, just to the left of my keyboard. It’s easy to reach with my left hand to press one of the buttons, and it’s a quick glance down. Best of all, the Stream Deck almost feels like an extension of my keyboard, eliminating some mental friction when I stop typing and press a button.

Designing interfaces is difficult

The Stream Deck does not program itself. You have to place an element on each button and decide what goes where, and if you want to use more than the allotted number of buttons, you’ll have to deal with the added complexity of programming buttons that take you to other profiles (and return).

In some ways, it’s great to have a blank canvas! You Decide what the keys do! You Decide what they look like! On the other hand… you have to make all those decisions, and if they don’t work out well, you have to fix them.

Is the Stream Deck companion app…adequate? It does the job, but that’s all I can really say about it. I wish it was easier to do things like choose a button color and a simple icon. (The app should really offer all of Apple’s SF symbols as icon options, but it doesn’t do much on that front.) Instead, I have to turn to an app like Icon Creator, which allows me to set a custom color, choose an icon, and even overlay text in a font of my choice. Text generated in Stream Deck apps is extremely ugly, with a limited font selection.

If you’re someone who even cares a bit about the look of the Stream Deck – and you probably should, since custom buttons are its main draw – you’ll end up with art direction buttons and button sets , which is fine if you’re into that sort of thing. You can get things the way you want with a little work. But I wish everything was easier and more beautiful.

keep it simple

While working on my Podcast Notes script, my initial concept was that I would press a button to launch the script and then type out a little note to myself. Turns out that was a mistake – that it was too mentally taxing to press a button and type a note when I was supposed to be having a conversation on a podcast. In general, I’ve found that workflows that require me to press multiple buttons or press a button and then type on the keyboard are just too cumbersome. The whole concept is as follows: press a button and the magic happens. Any more, and the thing falls apart.

For my Podcast Notes script, I started experimenting with different button locations, eventually settling on a whole bunch of buttons that would run the script with pre-filled text. It took a lot of time and effort to do this UI experimentation. This is not a task for everyone. But the beautiful thing is that I was able to find an approach that was designed especially for me and that works like my brain.

Keeping it simple also means reducing the number of buttons a task has to use. I ended up building a lot of my automations as a single shortcut that senses the current state of things and toggles accordingly, so instead of two or three different buttons that need to be pressed in the correct order, I can place the task whole thing on a single button and know that my automation will guess what I need and do the right thing.

There are many paths to take

When I first started using the Stream Deck, I honestly wasn’t sure what I was going to put on the buttons, whether it was keybindings or scripts or what, exactly. The response turned out to be delightfully eclectic.

I use Stream Deck’s “Website” type to do a lot of things that don’t involve opening a website, like turning HomeKit devices on and off using the HomeControl app, opening remote servers in Terminal and share my local server’s screen using Screens. All of these apps can be controlled through a URL, and all the Stream Deck type of website does is pass URLs to the system.

But for the most part I automate with Keyboard Maestro or Shortcuts. These automations can be very simple or devilishly complicated, but using the KMLink plugin makes it easy to connect button presses to Keyboard Maestro. And Keyboard Maestro’s own plug-in allows for plot of complexity if you want to go that route.

Layers and ambient information

A few final lessons I learned. Although Stream Deck may automatically switch between button sets when using a particular app, I have yet to find an instance where I want an entirely different button set in an app. Instead, I built a series of button layers based on larger contexts. I have one for podcasting, one for video streaming, and one for automating my podcast notes. Since I’m constantly switching between apps, this approach is simply better – and when I look at my Stream Deck, I’m never surprised at what I see there.

I also experimented with placing ambient information into the button art itself. For example, I wrote a Keyboard Maestro macro that displays the current listener count of a live stream, and I installed TJ Luoma’s amazing calendar macro that displays my meeting status in a button Stream Deck.

But you know what? I prefer seeing ambient information like this in my Mac’s menu bar rather than the Stream Deck. The only exception I’ve found so far is a macro that writes the number of minutes I recorded a podcast to a clock icon on the same row of buttons as my Podcast Note script. I think it has something to do with grouping this information together with buttons that I only look at when recording. Maybe because they go together? Your mileage may vary.

Is it worth it?

Is using something like the Stream Deck worth it? It depends on what you want to do with your Mac, but a lot of people could benefit from getting some of their favorite app shortcuts from a nested menu or a complicated keyboard shortcut and inside a colorful button. . Do you ever find a command through the Help menu because you never know where it is? Or having to try three or four different keyboard shortcut combinations before finding the right one? It’s much easier to press a button with an icon or text or color swatch and get the desired result.

For years I’ve had a macro that pastes HTML as Markdown into BBEdit; for my life I could never remember which hotkey I assigned to this command. I didn’t use the command often enough to internalize it, so each time I used it I had to remind myself if it was shift-option or command-shift or command-shift-option. Now I have a button with an arrow and the letters “md” at the top level of my Stream Deck, and it’s actually kind of exciting when I realize I have to press it.

It’s funny – Apple kind of went the way of Stream Deck when it came up with the Touch Bar. Unfortunately, the Touch Bar lacks two key features of the Stream Deck: touch buttons and customization. If Apple had replaced some of the function keys on its keyboards with Stream Deck-style keys, that really could have been something.

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