[R] Improving help in R

Berend Hasselman bhh at xs4all.nl
Thu Mar 15 11:10:28 CET 2012

On 14-03-2012, at 23:39, Tomáš Křehlík wrote:

> Hello R people
> I always wander what other people say about the R help. Finally after some years of using, I decided that it is probably time to try to do something about it, because the feeling of gritting teeth does not go away with years of usage. :) Moreover, I think it is one of the few things where R does not kick asses to the other statistical softwares. So, to the point:
> I get the feeling (by some experience with learning programming languages when I am not primarily a programmer but economist/statistician) that structure of help really helps and I would like to have it to go in the way
> basic syntax (by basic I really mean only the necessary arguments)
> example for "dummies", to see what it does
> click-here-if-you-want-to-know-more menu/button
> The best documentation that I ever used is probably one of Mathematica, look for example here http://reference.wolfram.com/mathematica/ref/Fit.html (it is somehow related to the stuff below).

Opinions differ.
I think the example is too busy.

> So what I did is that I took R help file for Fitting Linear Models ( http://stat.ethz.ch/R-manual/R-patched/library/stats/html/lm.html ) and put it into some more readable shape for me. So I built some other version (actually two) look at http://pinda.sifruje.cz/ . The "original" is just the same text taken and only some basic stuff solved (on my 27 inch monitor, if I make the browser full screen the original help is almost unreadable, because it stretches from one end to the other. Next we already have some pretty good fonts so why not to use them, here Linux Biolinum, and I did some to me aesthetic changes...). The "custom" goes a bit deeper and tries to implement a bit more of my thoughts. The buttons are really made quickly and only as an example. Also I do not claim that the code is anywhere good, I spent like hour or two just sawing some pieces that already lay around web. Just take it as some demonstration.
> What I would like to receive from you is your opinions about this topic. The stuff that I did is pretty easy to do even algorithmically (some parser could probably parse the existing help files). The only added value here is making important stuff more visible. I also added the "dummies" example.

To be honest, I don't like your proposal at all.
For one, to see more in your custom version I have to click. And click again and often to see details that matter.
Please, give it all without forcing the viewer to click.

Second, some of the fontsizes are much too small (both in the original and custom version). 
And they vary too much in size across the page.
On a Macbook Air 11inch the smaller fonts are totally unreadable.
Increasing browser fontsize leads to an unbalanced and rather ugly page. 
And line width does not adjust so you have to scroll horizontally.

I would not want to use help pages in this format and layout.
My apologies for being negative. but this is how I feel about your proposal.

As far as I am concerned there are only two things that could be improved in the R help pages:
1. set a maximum line width (relative to windowsize)
2. use bold and/or some colour for headings.

Both of these issues could be tackled in the .css file.
Main point a for me would be: keep it functional and simple.


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