Computer Books: How Do You Learn Software In-Depth?


O'reilly Report - Categories In the analysis of computer book sales, two things seem to be clear:

  • People want to learn how to write programs on the Mac
  • People don’t want to learn how to use programs on the Mac (or PC, for that matter)

The latter is especially interesting to me. Though my time in support taught me well about RTFM syndrome, there were always certain people interested in learning to use software to its fullest. This group understood that reviewing documentation was likely the best way to do that.

But expectations have changed. Usage should now be obvious or a lot of people won’t bother. I don’t mind the expectation that a manual shouldn’t be required to start using software right away. In fact, I like that attitude because developers must now give more care to their user interfaces. However, even in the best interfaces there are limits.

For my own usage, I bought an iWork 08 book to get a better feel for that suite of programs. Additionally, I downloaded a lengthy third-party Aperture guide to understand the various tools better.

I’m curious, at what point have you crossed the threshold, and either studied the full documentation or bought a supplemental book to learn a program in more depth?


Mark E

I always turn to manuals after first checking out video tutorials (official or third party) because I find them to be the best way into (and around) an application. While I find that user interfaces and app organization are indeed much improved, the apps have also gotten much more feature-rich (broad) and powerful (deep). Manuals are a must, and I prefer an explanation to an example-by-example format. When working with a new app, I’ll search out several manuals because one is usually much more to my liking.

One of the best ways I’ve found to get into complex apps like Aperture, for example, is to build an outline-format list of keystrokes. In Aperture, which is keystroke rich but not intuitively organized, I have grouped them into steps in my workflow in intuitive fashion for me.

I approach less-complicated apps – even iLife – with manuals too. I find it helps establish an overview but I also enjoy the walk-through. It alleviates whatever anxiety may attend to a new tool.


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The thing is, you use a program to get something done, not to become expert at the program. For small day to day things, I’ll generally stuff around before reaching for the online help– online help has gotten much worse over the years, I used to use it much more.

If the program is one I’m using extensively, or relying on in some way, (textmate, omnifocus, etc) I’ll read the manual– not so much for features, but to get a sense of the underlying rationale. I’ll review it after using the program for a while to look for ways of improving my workflow.

For really big software, I’ll buy supplementary books– this is usually because the provided manual is more for reference than for learning. Recently got one on Logic, which is helping me to understand the why, not just the how.

Josh Pigford

Well it depends. The problem with manuals is that they generally tackle issues on a feature-by-feature basis. What third-party books tend to do is address the software from a more practical stand point of how to do real-world tasks.

So what I’ll usually do is use the product’s manual as more of a reference item and use third-party books as a way to teach myself how to do new things.


Computer books are comparatively expensive. When money is tight it’s difficult to justify, especially if it’s a second or third book on the topic.

Also, there are too many free resources these days that it’s not really necessary to ever buy a book. For example, if you want to learn Objective-C Apple has tons of information available, there are numerous online tutorials and there are online courses like the excellent iPhone Development class from Stanford. If I need to know something esoteric, I’ll usually look to the built-in help first and then turn to websites with tips and FAQs on the language or tool in question.

That said, I have bought a couple of Objective-C books but they weren’t really needed.


I’ve recently finished reading two books aimed at the beginner/intermediate user. One is a member of the Apple Training Series covering iWork ’09. The second is from Microsoft Press – the Step by Step guide to Office 2008.

I didn’t actually need either title. Nothing that I *really* need to do with either suite requires a textbook. Regardless, both books have proven worthwhile. They covered parts of both suites that I had seldom ever touched and provided a nice overview of all the features and functions. Both titles also included sample files and content — which helped to add context to the lessons. Some reference manuals have come across as very dry and hard to apply in a real world sense.

Also, printed documentation gets the nod over the on-screen variety. I’ve never been a fan of protracted help screens or even PDF based user guides. Having a book on my lap and the program on the screen works better for me.

Tom Reestman


“They covered parts of both suites that I had seldom ever touched and provided a nice overview of all the features and functions. Both titles also included sample files and content ”

That’s the book I bought for iLife (though I got the 08 edition, not 09), and found it helpful.

Apple’s own doc for, say, Aperture, is good. The problem is, they tend to document what a feature “does”, but it doesn’t necessarily explain how you’d use it in the real world. Even for something as technical as documenting an API, such “cold” documentation is lacking, and helped greatly via sample code.

This is why third-party books (well, GOOD ones, anyway) rise above just a technical description, and SHOW you, via example, what it means in practical use.

Rob Oakes

I think it really depends on the programs. For packages like Photoshop and Illustrator, I don’t just own one book, I own several. And I’ve read them a couple of times. I think that msot professional class software is that way, you need to read the manual and understand the toolsets. Even then, you might still need a book to tell you about a really cool effect.

For other programs, that isn’t necessary. In fact, I’ve never been a great friend of reading printed documentation and computer books, but I am a huge fan of the built-in help. If I can’t figure it out, I then query the help and I expect to find the answer there. I actually think that good documentation is as important as a well thought out interface.

Certainly, things should be intuitive and easy to understand, but it is nice to include a good description of what a given tool does; or how to reach a particular effect. Good docs, in fact, is what separates good software from excellent software.


I too bought an Apreture book for the same reason. I think the issue with people buying how-to books on programming is that they have no experience of modern coding environments. For those who do there are plenty of online resources which are focussed to their needs. But for the majority, they would rather have a single source to get them started until they build up their inventory of online resources.
For applications (iWork, Office etc.) we are all used to some fairly standard workflows, and (hopefully) the application environment will be reasonably intuitive based on previous experience. Only specialist or ‘pro’ apps like Aperture or Final Cut might have the user reaching for a manual.


I always wanted to write a manual viewer application that used .rtfm as the file extension. Would stand for Rich Text Formatted Manual of course ;)


I didn’t end up buying the books, but I spent many hours at B&N reading them and taking notes (these computer books are expensive!). They were mostly for Final Cut Studio 2, and Photoshop CS4. Certainly you can get a grasp of the very basics of the programs (I was playing with gradient’s and filters after a few minutes of messing with Photoshop when I was in my teens) but to grasp the full power, you really need to either be a savant, or read these damn 80 dollar books.

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