Online help as PDF?

Subject: Online help as PDF?
From: "Geoff Hart" <Geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Date: Fri, 1 Oct 1999 15:14:00 -0400

Susana Rosende << considering switching from an online help
system (RoboHELP) to an online manual using PDFs.>>

The biggest problem with this switch is that PDF isn't inherently
context-sensitive; that is, when you're six levels deep in a dialog
box and click the help button, you can't easily go directly to the
relevant part of the PDF file, though you _can_ easily do this with
online help (whether WinHelp or HTMLHelp).

<<Despite the training class, the feedback is that nobody uses the
online help. It's just one more software they need to learn how to

Then the users won't be any more willing to use the PDF version of
the currently unused help file either; the information is identical,
and only the presentation format has changed. They're certainly
more likely to _print_ the PDF version, but if that's the case, you
don't have online help: you have a printed user manual that hasn't
yet been printed. You should really be finding out from the trainers
why people don't want to use the online help, and use that
information to design a help system they _will_ use. (Weird
possibility: Maybe it's the trainers who don't know how to use the
online help, and who thus don't teach it to the students? Stranger
things have happened.)

<<The only drawback with an online manual (created in
FrameMaker) is that there would be nothing equivalent to a Find or
Search tab.>>

PDF does indeed let you search the file. Unfortunately, it's a full-
text search, and that's simply not as efficient as a human-created
index. The far bigger drawback with a PDF online manual is that
most people don't bother to reformat the manual to fit the computer
screen (e.g., you either get half the page cut off or you live with
invisibly small type). Moreover, the text layout is fixed in PDF:
unlike with WinHelp and HTMLHelp, you can't resize the manual's
window and have the text reflow to fit the new window size. That's a
huge issue, because it means that users can't customize the
display so they can see both the manual and the software it
describes at the same time, without having to switch back and
forth between windows. You _can_ design the PDF file to fit
onscreen beside the main application, but there's still no flexibility
for those who want a different screen arrangement.

The thing to remember about PDF is that it's ***not*** online help,
and never will be unless Adobe makes a major change in its
development strategy. PDF is brilliant at what it does (allows you
to distribute a printed document electronically, and to build in a
high degree of interactivity), but it was never designed to let users
customize the appearance of the resulting document, or tie that
document into an application.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca (Pointe-Claire, Quebec)
"Perhaps there is something deep and profound behind all those sevens, something just calling out for us to discover it. But I
that it is only a pernicious, Pythagorean coincidence." George Miller, "The Magical Number Seven" (1956)

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