What stick do you have? If you have a MadCatz arcade stick you can easily get a better gate for the stick. I have a MadCatz SE stick that I basically gave the full Sanwa overhaul to. I replaced the stick with a Sanwa JLF-TP-8YT-SK, then added an octagonal gate and replaced all the buttons with Sanwa OBSF-30 30mm snap in buttons. All of which I got from LizardLick:
Lizard Lick Amusements
As far as your technique goes, that’s something you’re going to have to develop yourself. But I am always riding the gates on my stick to make sure I am in the correct position. The only times I don’t actually hit the gate is when I’m inputting a dash command. For that I just quickly flick the stick twice. All you need to hear is the “click” of the actuator on the stick to know you’ve input a command.
The main reason you’ll hear people telling you not to use shortcuts is because it takes away from your execution. SF4 & SSF4 have an incredibly lenient input allowance, so much so that a command of :d::df::d::df: results in a dragon punch, when the correct input should be :dp: The advantage is that the 1st method is easier and faster to do and has the distinct advantage that you can do it while crouching to keep your hit box small. In just about any other SF game if you did :d::df::d::df: you’d end up with a crouching hp but with SF4’s input leniency you get a dragon punch. Should you use the easier method? I say sure go ahead. Most of the SF4 playing community does. Just don’t be surprised if you go to play another fighting game that isn’t as for giving with the inputs, that your execution is somewhat lacking.
As for the mapping of buttons, that too is going to depend on your preference of what you want them to do. I’ve seen some people that disable them in the menu so that they do nothing, which can be used as a baiting technique in offline play. If your opponent hears you mashing buttons on their wake up or what have you, they may feel compelled to try and reversal or do something foolish that you can punish. Obviously if you’re playing online this has no value as a baiting tactic. But again, set them to what you prefer, some people set one to throw and the other to focus attack, some to 3xPPP and 3xKKK. It’s up to you.