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Why I like reading software manuals in .PDF form:


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  1. When a manual is in .PDF form, I can simply read one page after another, till I get to the end, and know I have read the entire manual. HTML-based manuals force me to navigate a maze of links, hoping beyond hope that I have successfully found every page. Even with a navigation bar on the side, one cannot be sure that every single page is linked to in said navigation bar. Many, many HTML-based manuals end up with sub-pages that can only be found via an obscure link, buried in a paragraph somewhere. So, you are forced to click every link you see, out of fear of missing out. This makes reading a manual kind of exhausting.
  2. In a .PDF, I can annotate the document as I see fit. I can highlight important parts. I can insert any questions I may have while reading (even when away from my main computer). Then, I can go back and try to answer those questions when I am either at my main computer or when I am online. Plus, sometimes you just want to insert a question and then keep reading. With HTML-based help, you have to use a separate method to keep track of all these notes and questions. It then becomes extra tedious to keep track of which note or question is about which part of the manual. 
  3. I can synchronize a .PDF manual (along with all those annotations) between different devices, simply by storing it in some cloud-based service. Yes, I can sometimes save "favorites" or "bookmarks" in an HTML-based help system, but those can never be synchronized between all my devices. So, if I want to make use of that feature, I am forced to always read said help on a single device.

Without these abilities, reading HTML-based help can become extremely frustrating. Especially when said "help" glosses over most of the actual detail of how to use the program. As a former network manager, and a former technical writer, with a degree in Computer Science and Education, I can definitely tell the difference between me simply not being able to understand something and just poor documentation.

 

I do have the tools available to convert existing HTML-based manuals to PDF. But it can be a tedious and error prone process. And the whole process must be repeated each time the HTML-based manual is updated. It is always far better to just start from the source files and use a reliable utility to produce the .PDF version of the document. Usually, the same tool that generated the HTML-based manual has a feature to generate a .PDF file as well. So there is often no real excuse for a company to neglect doing this.

Sometimes it feels as if software companies rely solely on HTML-based documentation just so they never have to worry about users working from an outdated copy of the manual. But I also feel that this is a bit of a cop-out.

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Alrighty! I just tried using Adobe Acrobat Pro XI to capture the HTML-help (from the Affinity site) to a .PDF file. Unfortunately, no matter how I attempt to do so, regardless of which URL I give to Acrobat as its starting point, the only thing I get is the first (title) page of the help/manual. 

I also tried using the "Print Page" feature of the HTML-based help (at the bottom of the navigation bar), and simply print that to .PDF. While it does print the page appropriately, there are additional problems with that technique: 

  1. I would have to print each page individually, then combine them all together as one .PDF. That's a lot of pages.
  2. Any links on that "printed" page go back to the Affinity site. While Acrobat Pro has a feature where you can right-click on a link in a .PDF file and choose "Append to document," the problem from the first paragraph rears its head and all you get is the title page. Therefore, the only way to get links in the document to actually jump to the correct page within the document is to (insanely) tediously fix each and every link manually. 

I have a "fall-back" mode, wherein I keep my notes in Microsoft OneNote, then copy snippets of text from a web page and put my comments under that. I even have a set of AutoHotKey macros that will quickly grab the quote from the web page, along with a "link to selected text," then paste that quote into OneNote and insert a hyperlink back to the location of the quote on the original website. However, because of the way that these HTML help pages are generated and fed out over the internet, it is impossible to use the "link to selected text" feature of the Chrome browser, and so my links can only go to the whole page itself. While this is "adequate" it still generates friction when I am trying to reference back to the original text. Plus, I will have copied and pasted almost every sentence of the entire manual by the time I am finished. Yes, I have questions about almost every single one. 

I know, a lot of people will ask me why I would bother to go to all this trouble. Because I like to truly know how my software actually works. I don't like to be guessing my way through everything all the time. And, I like to be able to go back to an authoritative manual for reference when I forget things, and not have to figure them all out from the beginning. Plus, I hope to (eventually) be making YouTube videos about these products, and maybe even write a book. I am not satisfied with just dinking around with a feature for a few minutes and then churning out yet another video that glosses over all the details, or is utterly incorrect (while sounding authoritative). I am hoping there will be an audience for truly authoritative, detailed (while still being as concise as possible), accurate, well-researched videos. I am a retired network manager / technical writer, with a degree in Computer Science and Education. I know the difference between good and bad documentation and training videos. Unfortunately, almost everything I see is in the latter category, and I would like to try to fix that.

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100% Agreed!

There's another (implicit) benefit of PDF Manuals... providing one forces the software maker to think about and articulate their product's features in a linear and complete manner. This, quite surely, benefits everyone; including the software maker, as it will more easily reveal workflow problems and excess user interactions for any and all operations.

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I also like to be able to print PDF manuals.  That way, instead of having to flip back and forth between the application and the documentation, or having one on the computer and another on the iPad, I can have the printed PDF on my desk and flip to the necessary page without leaving the application.

And that means it's beneficial not only to have a PDF but if they also design the PDF with large enough margins to accommodate a 3-hole punch so I can keep it in a 3-ring binder.  (Also means sections can be updated as needed.)  Sure, you can shrink it, but if the text is small to begin with, then you end up with even smaller text in order to get decent margins.

And, it's generally much easier to print PDF documentation than HTML documentation.  Too many times the screen view and print view for HTML are different or you end up with images that are too large or misplaced.

Also, keep video content separate.  Or, if there is video, also have what is in the video transcribed into text along with screenshots where needed.  Nothing worse than printing a PDF manual only to later find some of the instructions were embedded in video.  That may be okay if you're viewing the PDF on an electronic device but useless if you print it.

Additionally, in the case of specific features, any examples or tutorials should not assume you've read the manual from start to finish.  Sometimes, you want to look up something specific and, if the example or tutorial requires you read a previous example or tutorial, it can lead to a lot of jumping around.  At the very least, provide links/page numbers for prerequisite examples/tutorials so you can more easily find them.

Also, it'd be nice if all documentation, manuals, guides, etc. were available in the same formats.  As an example, there is one application I use where one guide is built into the program, which requires switching back and forth between the documentation and project windows.  Annoying, as I've previously indicated, but I can work around it.  But then, another part of the documentation is online and others are PDF.  And they are all listed in the same menu and it's easy to forget which is which and nothing in the menu tells you which is which, so you click an item in the window and, unless you remember, you don't know if it's going to open in the program, in a web browser or as a PDF.  For the love of everything good, please don't do that.  Don't have scattered documentation.  Either put everything in one format or offer everything in multiple formats.  Don't mix and match and drive users batty.

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+100 for a PDF manual.
That said though, a good PDF manual is hard work. A PDF without a properly linked TOC and clickable links ain't worth much either.

MacBookAir 15": MacOS Ventura > Affinity v1, v2, v2 beta // MacBookPro 15" mid-2012: MacOS El Capitan > Affinity v1 / MacOS Catalina > Affinity v1, v2, v2 beta // iPad 8th: iPadOS 16 > Affinity v2

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Agree with all of the above. Books are best, whether on paper or on screen.

Short tutorials and help topics about tools are all well and good. Learning how to choose which tool to use when and for what purpose is a whole other story. You can give a man a Shopsmith along with instructions and tips on how to use a saw, chisel, planer, and lathe, but don't expect him to build a grandfather's clock.

I think some people made a lot of money writing and producing The Missing Manual Series of books. I bought one for Photoshop Elements a couple of decades ago and read it all the way through. I used to enjoy reading thousand-page software manuals in my working years. Books by O'Reilly come to mind.

That people no longer have such resources that put things together into a coherent whole explains a lot. 

Then again, there are many who choose to remain uninformed and feel it an imposition when you say they must understand how to do whatever it is that they are doing. 

Affinity Photo 2.4.2 (MSI) and 1.10.6; Affinity Publisher 2.4.2 (MSI) and 1.10.6. Windows 10 Home x64 version 22H2.
Dell XPS 8940, 16 GB Ram, Intel Core i7-11700K @ 3.60 GHz, NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3060

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2 hours ago, loukash said:

+100 for a PDF manual.
That said though, a good PDF manual is hard work. A PDF without a properly linked TOC and clickable links ain't worth much either.

Fortunately, almost every piece of software that generates .PDF output makes these easy to do. One simply has to bother to select the correct options.

 

Now, a good manual, in general, is actually very difficult to write and organize. As a skilled technical writer, I am dismayed to see that almost every software company, and almost every book publisher seems to have simply settled for what "looks like" a well-formatted document, rather that an actually well-written one. "Ink in the shape of a document," if you will.

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Also, in addition to having a useful guide, said guide should also be proofread and tested.  It's pretty frustrating when you're trying to learn something and you follow the instructions step-by-step and it doesn't work.  And then you repeat and are more careful and it still doesn't work.  And then, if you're lucky, you find out it was due to a typo.  If you're unlucky, you give up and curse the day you bought the software.

So, companies should definitely proofread and test.  And the person doing the testing should be someone who has no idea how to use the software so they don't overlook errors because they already know what they're doing.

I recall throwing a guide across the room (the same book more than once) in frustration.  It was a programming book.  I had typed the example in exactly as it appeared in the book.  Didn't work.  Went through it line by line to double check and it still didn't work.  Went through it character by character, ensuring what I typed in was the same as in the book.  No luck.  Very frustrating.

I assume it had to be a typo or something missing that I wasn't yet knowledgeable enough to find on my own.  As I recall, I pretty much gave up on whatever it was I was trying to do.  And, there was no website forum back then to ask on.  Encountered a similar problem with another example in a different IDE years later and that was due to a typo, so I figure the earlier one was likely the same kind of situation.  If I remembered what it was, I could go back and check, though I don't know if I want to confirm that a typo in a programming guide threw me off learning programming for too long.  Geez.  Who knows if I could have made a killer app way back when but it never happened because of a typo in a learning guide?  Is there a statute of limitations for suing over errors and omissions in books that prevented you from learning how to program and, thus, missing out on countless opportunities?  I could be a millionaire by now if not for a possible typo someone else made.

At any rate, it's extremely frustrating trying to learn something only to fail not because you're stupid but because a semicolon or something is missing and you don't know enough to look for that sort of thing.  Granted, programming IDEs are more sensitive to typos than design programs but errors or omissions can still be frustrating, like if a design tutorial says to use a specific tool and that tool has been moved, renamed or otherwise not included in the version of the software you're using.  Or if it was in the development version but got dropped or moved before the released version but the documentation wasn't updated.

And then there's sometimes the part where they seem to skip a step.  And you follow step by step and it's like, um, something is missing here.  The tutorial shows a flower at this step but I've only got a circle.  Where did the petals come in?  How am I supposed to apply a gradient to the petals I haven't been shown how to make yet?

 

32 minutes ago, Granddaddy said:

Then again, there are many who choose to remain uninformed and feel it an imposition when you say they must understand how to do whatever it is that they are doing. 

True, but sometimes it can be difficult to learn what you need to know when you don't know what you don't know and there's no helpful guide to get you to understand what you don't know so that you can figure out what you don't know so you can research it and learn it.

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3 hours ago, Grant Robertson said:

Fortunately, almost every piece of software that generates .PDF output makes these easy to do. One simply has to bother to select the correct options.

And fortunately, Serif have Affinity Publisher, so the PDF should be good if the software itself is good.

 

3 hours ago, Grant Robertson said:

Now, a good manual, in general, is actually very difficult to write and organize. As a skilled technical writer, I am dismayed to see that almost every software company, and almost every book publisher seems to have simply settled for what "looks like" a well-formatted document, rather that an actually well-written one. "Ink in the shape of a document," if you will.

I agree with this, and by looking at the manual they published, i would know that if it is a really good "user manual", or only a developer "feature documentation".

sometimes i really hate it if i read some "user manual" that feel like it just a documentation that didn't help at all but labeled as user manual😞.

most of the open-source software i used have tendency to write like a developer documentation rather than aimed at user (and i can understand why). But if it is a paid product, a good user manual is a must IMO.

  

2 hours ago, dcr said:

True, but sometimes it can be difficult to learn what you need to know when you don't know what you don't know and there's no helpful guide to get you to understand what you don't know so that you can figure out what you don't know so you can research it and learn it.

I remember the first time i try learn about electronic music gear, it is a steep learning curve but fortunately most of the gear i bought/used have a beautiful, detailed and well-structured (printed) user manual that i can refer to anytime i need it, and only ask/find someone more knowledgeable (internet is still rare back in the day) whenever i don't know about something that i can't find the answer on the manual.

 

 

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  • 8 months later...
  • 2 weeks later...
On 12/13/2022 at 9:35 PM, deeds said:

100% Agreed!

There's another (implicit) benefit of PDF Manuals... providing one forces the software maker to think about and articulate their product's features in a linear and complete manner. This, quite surely, benefits everyone; including the software maker, as it will more easily reveal workflow problems and excess user interactions for any and all operations.

It is a sad reality, too, that the non-linear composition of help files all but guarantees skimpy exposition and poor coverage. 

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On 9/19/2023 at 6:06 PM, meyer.wil said:

It is a sad reality, too, that the non-linear composition of help files all but guarantees skimpy exposition and poor coverage. 

When you write online help you have to keep it shorter for viewing inside the online help viewer, even if you provide a web version of it as Serif and Adobe do. Serif has also wisely chosen to bundle the online help with the applications rather than requiring internet access - Adobe requires internet access unless you choose to manually download the help files. But including them means you have to use very few screenshots to keep the total package small because screenshots must be localized to each of the eight languages that Serif supports and there aren't separate installers for each language.

Managing the online help for Affinity would be a difficult task because there are so many overlapping features in the three applications. if you make a change to character formatting, you have to change the help page for the three apps multiplied by eight languages for a total of 24 pages. And that's if it's only mentioned on one page. If it's mentioned on three pages then that would be 72 pages to update. It's so much easier to write a manual for a single app in a single language. I can add as many examples and screenshots as I like.

After spending more time in Publisher's help file than probably most users, the main recommendation I'd have for improvement is to eliminate the pages that aren't part of the primary navigation system. Some pages are in the left nav, others are not, so you're never really sure if you've read everything about a topic. The reason for these pages to be omitted from the navigation is so that they can be referred to from more than one place, but as you said it makes it non-linear. If everything was in the nav then you could read through the Publishing and Sharing section from start to finish and know that you'd read it all. This would be a big change so it's not something that could be done easily.

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On 9/24/2023 at 8:49 AM, MikeTO said:

Managing the online help for Affinity would be a difficult task because there are so many overlapping features in the three applications. if you make a change to character formatting, you have to change the help page for the three apps multiplied by eight languages for a total of 24 pages. And that's if it's only mentioned on one page. If it's mentioned on three pages then that would be 72 pages to update. It's so much easier to write a manual for a single app in a single language. I can add as many examples and screenshots as I like.

My comment was not specific to Serif, nor to Affinity help files, but to the challenges in assembling non-linear help files. A technical book is a major undertaking, but easier to manage than help files. Easier, at least, to assess coverage. There are good, common sense approaches to attempting to manage coverage in help, but those I have seen are simply disciplines, and depend on the use of separate tools, usually search tools, for their success.

I will continue to assert that the quality of documentation has deteriorated in the industry at large, since printed manuals ceased to be produced. Most help files are designed for reference use, not for learning. To that degree, Affinity help is better than many I have seen.

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  • 1 month later...

I agree with all the sentiments expressed above and a huge thank you to Mike for creating the Publisher 2 pdf manual, something Serif should have done.

My only regret is that I discovered this after I spent an entire day saving The Publisher Help pages to pdf with the intention of creating a manual myself.

btw In doing this I found Serif has two sets of Help files. One reached through the Help menu in Publisher 2 and the other via the Support pages on this website, and they do not match.

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1 minute ago, Peter Breis said:

I agree with all the sentiments expressed above and a huge thank you to Mike for creating the Publisher 2 pdf manual, something Serif should have done.

My only regret is that I discovered this after I spent an entire day saving The Publisher Help pages to pdf with the intention of creating a manual myself.

btw In doing this I found Serif has two sets of Help files. One reached through the Help menu in Publisher 2 and the other via the Support pages on this website, and they do not match.

You're most welcome. Keep an eye out for the next version when 2.3 is released. It's going to cover a lot more. It also covers a lot of the options that aren't explained in depth in the help system.

FYI, the help files should be identical. I've compared the help files before and found no differences, except in the beta of course. Perhaps you were looking at the v1 help files online? You can find all versions here: https://affinity.help

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Just checked the webpage Help again and it is not what i saw before so you maybe right, I got to it through a Google search.

The Help menu version is not helpful (pun intended). Search doesn't work so I have to manually hunt through the not well written pages.

I wasted a lot of time trying to find how to format Tables only to accidentally drag out the Table Inspector and find all the stuff I was missing was hidden down below, out of sight with no hint it was there. 🤷🏻‍♂️

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14 hours ago, Peter Breis said:

One reached through the Help menu in Publisher 2 and the other via the Support pages on this website, and they do not match.

No "other", but "two more".

It is a pity that you do not accept the basic information that is provided to you here.

Affinity Store (MSI/EXE): Affinity Suite (ADe, APh, APu) 2.4.0.2301
Dell OptiPlex 7060, i5-8500 3.00 GHz, 16 GB, Intel UHD Graphics 630, Dell P2417H 1920 x 1080, Windows 11 Pro, Version 23H2, Build 22631.3155.
Dell Latitude E5570, i5-6440HQ 2.60 GHz, 8 GB, Intel HD Graphics 530, 1920 x 1080, Windows 11 Pro, Version 23H2, Build 22631.3155.
Intel NUC5PGYH, Pentium N3700 2.40 GHz, 8 GB, Intel HD Graphics, EIZO EV2456 1920 x 1200, Windows 10 Pro, Version 21H1, Build 19043.2130.

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Just now, Peter Breis said:

It is a pity I did not have a time machine to go into the future.

Time machine not needed at all. Just follow the posts and reactions to them that you have written in the past and project this information into new posts - that is, in a standard time sequence.

image.png.a996985a14a038aaec6aacb0a5970d4c.png

image.png.809a98bf08319b2e2c0b0ba0d552d681.png

 

Just now, Peter Breis said:

And that was an odd but tartly incorrect correction of my grammar.

This is not a "grammar" correction. You write that there is "one" other version of the Web Help, but that is not true - in the context of the V1 and V2 versions, there are "two" more web versions.

 

Affinity Store (MSI/EXE): Affinity Suite (ADe, APh, APu) 2.4.0.2301
Dell OptiPlex 7060, i5-8500 3.00 GHz, 16 GB, Intel UHD Graphics 630, Dell P2417H 1920 x 1080, Windows 11 Pro, Version 23H2, Build 22631.3155.
Dell Latitude E5570, i5-6440HQ 2.60 GHz, 8 GB, Intel HD Graphics 530, 1920 x 1080, Windows 11 Pro, Version 23H2, Build 22631.3155.
Intel NUC5PGYH, Pentium N3700 2.40 GHz, 8 GB, Intel HD Graphics, EIZO EV2456 1920 x 1200, Windows 10 Pro, Version 21H1, Build 19043.2130.

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I only posted the question and comment a few hours ago.

Your tart reply was the first notification other than Mike's I got back.

I am aware there is a Help page/files for v1.0. As I said I did a Google search on Affinity Publisher 2 and this is what I got:

image.png.5b1285dea56f9139e55c5ec59393ae4b.png

 

But can no longer find it.

Why don't you find something more useful to do than have a go at me over something that seems pointless?

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8 minutes ago, Peter Breis said:

As I said I did a Google search on Affinity Publisher 2 and this is what I got:

Unfortunately, showing a screenshot like that tells us very little. You need to tell us the URL that was returned.

It would also help to expand the Introduction tab.

My guess: you got a V1 Help page.

If you want to search the web for Publisher 2 Help, include the search term site:affinity.help/publisher2 or you can't be sure what you'll get. Or, go to https://affinity.help and then click on the link for Publisher 2 (desktop or iPad, as appropriate) and use the Search box there. But sometimes using a web search will give more results.

-- Walt
Designer, Photo, and Publisher V1 and V2 at latest retail and beta releases
PC:
    Desktop:  Windows 11 Pro, version 23H2, 64GB memory, AMD Ryzen 9 5900 12-Core @ 3.00 GHz, NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3090 

    Laptop:  Windows 11 Pro, version 23H2, 32GB memory, Intel Core i7-10750H @ 2.60GHz, Intel UHD Graphics Comet Lake GT2 and NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3070 Laptop GPU.
iPad:  iPad Pro M1, 12.9": iPadOS 17.5, Apple Pencil 2, Magic Keyboard 
Mac:  2023 M2 MacBook Air 15", 16GB memory, macOS Sonoma 14.5

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