Enhancing Tutorials With Acrobat

A funny thing happens to students after class: they forget what they’ve learned.

Well, not everything, but nobody has 100% retention, which is why in 1121AD the Cistercian monk Erroneus invented:

Since then, other than replacing quill pens with laser printers, and sheep skins with paper, not much has changed. Every year, teachers and trainers pile paper on students, hoping to reinforce classroom presentations. Trees are slaughtered, backpacks are crammed full, but those handouts are not much more engaging than the old sheepskin. Mind you, the sheep are happier, but we’re still not paperless.

But What If It Flashed and Beeped? Enter the PDF…

Dedicated multimedia authoring applications like Authorware, Director and RoboDemo are great, but you can bring handouts to life by using stuff you already have around the house: page layout programs, screen capture utilities and Adobe Acrobat 6.0 Professional.

Acrobat provides useful and easy-to-use tools for giving end-users feedback, additional instructions, explanatory pop-ups and hyperlinks to more detailed information. So a PDF can serve as a compact ‘portal’ to a world of support: it’s efficient and potentially livelier than a paper equivalent.

It’s been possible to embed sounds and add movie links to PDFs since Acrobat 2.1 (really!), but movies remained external files until the release of Acrobat 6.0 Professional. Embedding movies eases distribution, but in addition, Acrobat 6.0 gives content creators the ability to control ‘renditions’ of movies, and trigger an appropriate presentation based on the end-user’s environment. QuickTime, Flash, AVI, MPEG and other media format clips can be rendered by Adobe Reader. It’s worth taking advantage of PDF 1.5 features and providing the end-user a link to Reader 6.0 downloads. If you’re distributing on CD, you can even include the Reader installer. (See Adobe’s licensing requirements)

Consider the Novice

Get Them Started

If your tutorial includes multiple PDFs, quarantine them in a single directory, then, outside that directory, provide one PDF to lure them down the right path. Name it ‘ReadMe’ or ‘Start Here,’ and provide links to the other files. Sure, it’s more work for you, but it’s much easier on the end-user.

Where to begin? Create an easy-to-find ‘Read Me’ file, so the reader knows where to start.

Provide Navigational Controls:

New users of Acrobat won’t know to hit ‘Enter’ or the Down arrow to go to the next page, much less ‘Document>Go To>Previous View’ to retrace their steps. Provide navigational controls, make them intuitive, and explain how they work. Avoid artistic hieroglyphics: this is no time to be mysterious.

Cute, but what do they mean?

Crude, but obvious.

Cute As A Button

Artwork for button appearances can be a variety of acronyms, er, formats — PDF, TIFF, JPEG, GIF, BMP, PNG, EPS. As you search for an art file to decorate a button, though, Acrobat only ‘sees’ one species at a time. Your artwork folder may contain TIFFs, PDFs and JPEGs, but, under Windows, it will display a list of only one file format at a time. Under Mac OS X, at least you’ll see multiple file types, but it’s just teasing: Acrobat only makes one file format selectable at a time.

TIP: Make it easy on yourself. Save button artwork in multi-page PDFs — it’s the default file format when you’re hunting for button artwork, and it can contain cool transparency and vector components. And the multi-page format allows one-stop button-label shopping.

Pick a page, pick a button

Design for On-Screen Viewing

  • Use larger, sans-serif text for readability.
  • Use simple backgrounds: don’t let illustrations compete with text.
  • A Picture is Worth . . . well, you know.
  • Allow room for navigational controls that will be added in Acrobat.
  • Consider using a horizontal format to maximize use of monitor display area.

Squeeze Your File

  • Scale before placing: reduce graphic size in Photoshop rather than by scaling in page layout.
  • Grayscale is smaller than RGB: are your screen shots mainly gray? Reduce file size by saving them as grayscale.
  • RGB is smaller than CMYK: If this started as a print project, convert it to RGB for online viewing and squeeze out 25%.
  • Vector art takes up less room than pixels: vector flat color areas occupy significantly less space than pixels.

Video Alternatives

You’re packing for vacation, and you think: ‘It’ll be hot, so I’ll take shorts. It might rain; I’ll take an umbrella. It’ll be cold at night — better take a down jacket.’ Next thing you know, you’re checking 2 suitcases and a trunk. Sound familiar?

Then you’ll like Renditions. If you’re using Acrobat 6-compatible media, you can designate alternate sounds or movie clips, to be played under specified conditions. For instance, a 24-bit movie could be replaced by an optimized 8-bit movie if your PDF wakes up in a 256-color environment. Like those crammed suitcases, a Renditions-equipped PDF isn’t any lighter, it’s just better prepared for alternate conditions.

Parallel Worlds

Want your students to be able to read your instructions onscreen while they use the application they’re trying to learn? Sometimes it’s nice to factor out the Acrobat environment by hiding Acrobat controls, so only the file itself is visible. But Full-Screen mode precludes seeing a PDF tutorial and another application without a dual-monitor setup. Try this trick: use a small page size (say, 5′ x 7′), and set the Initial View to:

  • Resize window to initial page
  • Center window on screen
  • Hide menu bar
  • Hide tool bars
  • Hide window controls

For once, platform disparity favors the Macintosh: the PDF floats onscreen with no distracting menu bars, and can coexist with another application. It’s more of a challenge on Windows, but, with a bit of window resizing, it’s possible.

Floating tutorial

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About the Author: Claudia McCue

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