Next time you have a keyboard on the screen (like when you are typing an email) look near the bottom left. See that microphone symbol. Tap it and start talking. Yep, you read that right. Tap it start talking out loud like you are talking to a real live person. When you have said your piece, tap it again. At this point magic pixies will listen diligently to what you say and write it on the screen. The first time you see this happen you may faint at how wondrous it is. Or maybe not, maybe you will be nonchalant about it and think that it is not big deal. Trust me, if you had ever done any programming you would know that is is very impressive stuff. It really is one of those show stopping miracles of technology.

Now, what were you saying about how you could possibly work without a keyboard on an iPad?

OK, to be fair it is not right for every situation. Maybe you are in a very noisy room. Maybe you are in a public place and would be too shy (or too considerate of others) to use it. Maybe you have a 1st or 2nd generation iPad (they did not introduce this facility until 3rd generation). Maybe you are not connected to the Internet (you need an Internet connection for this facility). Maybe you have gone into the settings App and switched off Siri (which will stop the microphone symbol appearing, in which case just go switch it back on again, it doesn't hurt and it won't cost anything). Providing you are not in one of those situations, this works surprising well.

Now, there no such thing as perfect dictation. Even if you were talking to another human there would be occasions when they misheard you and wrote down the wrong thing. So how good (or otherwise) a job does this do? As a native of Oxford in England, who has done professional voice over work, I am probably the least qualified person to comment. It always understands exactly what I am saying. It’s like it was written for me personally. However, I do get to see a lot of other people use it as I setup iPads for them. Some of them have regional accents or speech impediments. The remarkable thing is, it mostly seems to work for them too. Sure they might have to speak with a little care to pronounce all the words. Sure they have to go back and correct the odd word with the keyboard, but mostly it gets it.

Of course there are limits. A couple of weeks ago I met a German lady with a very odd accent. I could barley understand what she said when she spoke English and I used to live in Germany. I could image the magic pixies inside the iPad looking at each other in total befuddlement. But then I suspect the people in Walmart would do just the same as well, so that’s only fair.

The top tips for using dictation:

  1. Think before you speak. The little microphone button is a surprisingly powerful mind wiping device. Folks press the button and are then struck dumb! The reason is simple enough: you are just not use to talking to a machine. We are all creatures of habit. New stuff takes time to bed in. Unfortunately plenty of people have this experience, get a bit embarrassed and never go back. Don’t do that. It’s a skill worth learning and like any skill worth learning it takes time and perseverance. Stick at it. At first you need to think out the exact sentence you are going to say before you speak. Then hit the mic, speak and press the mic again. Fix any mistakes and think out the exact words for the next sentence. Keep doing that and after a few days you will be able to press the button and then think. It’s worth getting there, because it’s quicker than typing. Also, it’s the way the world going. Typing will look as old fashioned as hammering into a clay tablets in years to come. The world we be designed with you talking to pieces of technology, better get used to it.
  2. Speak clearly! Sit up straight, don’t mumble, take your hand away from your face. In fact at this point lets pretend I have turned into a stern English nanny from the 1850’s. That should do it!
  3. Avoid background noise. Obviously that will just confuse it.
  4. Be considerate. Don’t use this sitting next to someone else who is trying to concentrate on their own stuff. It’s just bad manners.
  5. Force yourself to use it. “We are what we repeatedly do”, said Aristotle, “excellence than is habit, not an act”. He’s got a point. Humans are defined by our habits. You have had years of reaching for a keyboard when you want to put information into a computer. That habit will be a strong one. Your subconscious will keep forcing you back to it. You need to keep using dictation until it is a habit. Then you can switch between them as best suits your needs.

Go and try it. It's different to what you are used to, but there's a chance you might just love it.