A year with the Elgato Stream Deck – Six Colors

Stream deck and surprise guest

I’ve been using an Elgato Stream Deck for over a year. It’s a USB peripheral that offers a button grid with an indicator underneath, so each button can be labeled with an icon and/or text you specify. The goal of the Stream Deck is to simplify esoteric actions on your computer by allowing you to place them on dedicated keys with custom graphics so you always know to press the blue key instead of Command-Shift-Option-3 to type.

I was initially quite skeptical about the Stream Deck. I have a perfect keyboard, full of keys to map commands to. Why not just memorize these key combinations?

And yet, after a few months of using a Stream Deck Mini that I bought from Target on a whim, I decided to upgrade to the full-size Stream Deck. Turns out the concept of wiring commands I could never remember from the keyboard shortcuts, all the macros and shortcuts and scripts I spent hours creating and then immediately forgot to put front and center, everything made worthwhile. I had gone from a skeptic to a convert, and it only took a few months – and a lot of lessons learned.

Ergonomics count

It might not look like it, but the Stream Deck is essentially a tiny, weird keyboard. And it shares some key characteristics with a keyboard: Ergonomics are key, and everyone’s ergonomics will be different. I have many friends who place their Stream Decks front and center on their desks under their monitor. That would make it easier to see, but I’d have to reach my keyboard tray to press any of the keys.

Instead, my Stream Deck sits 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 look down. Even better, the Stream Deck feels almost like an extension of my keyboard, eliminating a degree of mental friction when I stop typing and hit a key.

Designing interfaces is difficult

The Stream Deck doesn’t 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 have to deal with the added complexity of programming buttons that Lead you to other profiles (and the back).

In a way, getting a blank canvas is great! You decide what the buttons do! You decide what they look like! On the other hand… you have to make all these decisions, and if they don’t work well, you’re the one who has to correct them.

The companion app Stream Deck is… appropriate? 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 really should offer all of Apple’s SF icons 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 overlay it even text in a font of my choice. Text generated in the Stream Deck apps is extremely ugly, with a limited choice of fonts.

If you’re someone who cares even a little bit about how the Stream Deck looks – and you probably should, since the custom buttons are its main attraction – you’ll find yourself art directing buttons and button sets huh that’s fine if you’re into something like that. With a little work, you can get things exactly how you want them. But I wish it was all simpler and looked better.

keep it simple

While working on my podcast notes script, my initial concept was that I would press a key to start the script and then type out a little note for myself. That turned out to be a mistake — that it was just too much mental effort to hit a button and type a note while I was also supposedly having a conversation on a podcast. In general, I’ve found that workflows that require me to press more than one key, or press a key and then type on the keyboard, are just too complicated. The whole concept is: push a button and the magic happens. Any more, and the trick falls apart.

For my Podcast Notes script, I started experimenting with different button placements and eventually settled on a whole set of buttons that would run the script with pre-filled text. It took a lot of time and effort to do these experiments with the user interface. It is not a task that is for everyone. But the beauty of it is that I was able to create an approach that was designed just for me and works the way my brain works.

Keeping it simple also means reducing the number of buttons a task has to use. I ended up creating many of my automations as a single shortcut that recognizes the current state of things and toggles accordingly, allowing me to place the entire task on one instead of two or three different buttons that need to be pressed in the correct order single button and know that my automation intuitively recognizes what I need and does the right thing.

There are many ways to go

When I first started using the Stream Deck I honestly wasn’t sure what I was going to put on the buttons, whether they would be keyboard equivalents or scripts or what exactly. The answer has turned out to be wonderfully versatile.

I use Stream Deck’s “Website” type to do a lot of things that don’t require opening a website, e.g. All of these apps can be controlled via URL, and all Stream Deck’s website-type does is forward URLs to the system.

But for the most part I automate with Keyboard Maestro or Shortcuts. These automations can be super simple or fiendishly complicated, but using the KMLink plugin makes connecting keystrokes to Keyboard Maestro easy. And Keyboard Maestro’s own plug-in enables a a lot of of complexity if you want to go this route.

Layers and environment information

A few final lessons I learned. While Stream Deck can automatically switch between button sets when using a specific app, I have yet to find an instance where I would like to have an entirely different set of buttons in one app. Instead, I created a series of button layers based on broader contexts. I have one for podcasts, one for streaming video, and one for use with my Podcast Notes automation. Since I’m constantly switching between apps, this approach just feels better – and when I look at my Stream Deck, I’m never surprised at what I see there.

I’ve also experimented by including environment information in the button graphic itself. For example, I wrote a Keyboard Maestro macro that shows the number of people currently listening to a live stream, and I installed TJ Luoma’s amazing Calendar macro that shows my meeting status in a stream deck button.

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

Is it worth?

Is it worth using something like Stream Deck? It depends on what you want to do with your Mac, but many people could benefit from being able to get some of their favorite app shortcuts out of a nested menu or complicated keyboard shortcut into a colorful button. Are you looking for a command from the Help menu because you can’t remember where it is? Or do you have to try three or four different key combinations before you find the right one? It’s much easier to press a button with an icon, text, or color box and get the result you want.

For years I’ve had a macro that injects HTML as Markdown into BBEdit; for all my life I could never remember what keyboard shortcut I assigned to that command. I didn’t use the command often enough to internalize it, so I had to remind myself each time whether it was Shift-Option or Command-Shift or Command-Shift-Option. Now I have a button with an arrow and the letters “md” on the top layer of my stream deck, and it’s actually a little exciting when I realize that I can press it.

It’s funny — Apple went down the Stream Deck route when it came up with the Touch Bar. Unfortunately, the Touch Bar lacks two key features of the Stream Deck: tactile buttons and customizability. If Apple had replaced some of the function keys on its keyboards with Stream Deck-style keys, something really might have happened.

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