Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Broken by design

tl;dr – I can't print or save a filled-in form generated by  HMRC software

A pet peeve, involving the Taxman and Adobe.

The Taxmen need a form. They'd like it online, and generously supply free software to help me get the numbers in the boxes. I use their software. It produces a form as a .pdf.

It's a dynamically-filled form*, so if I use one of my usual pdf readers, the boxes are devoid of numbers. Only with Adobe's reader can I see my numbers in the boxes. Adobe's reader is desperately slow and buggy, and I need to explicitly allow it to trust this locally-made form in order to see anything meaningful – but that's not my peeve. My peeve starts when I get to a point where the form is useful, and I'm shown a neat purple message:

        You cannot save data typed into this form. Please print your completed form if you would like a copy for your records.

Well, I would. Note that I've not typed any data into the form; it's been generated for me by the Taxman's tool. I go to print the form. I tend to print to .pdf, as I'm swamped with archived paper as it is, and a .pdf is both searchable and findable. A dialog appears, jauntily sporting the following:

        Saving a PDF file when printing is not supported. Instead, choose File > Save.

I consider printing it to paper**, scanning it in, OCR-ing the thing and calling it quits. Just in case, I try File > Save. No one will be surprised to know that I'm told:

        Data typed into this form will not be saved. Adobe Reader can only save a blank copy of this form.

A blank form? I'm sure that's what the taxman intended. The observant will notice that, as happens so often, following the instructions will put me into a self-defeating infinite loop. I've met this before, and that's my peeve.

It's big guns time. I pull out Acrobat 6 Professional. We're into software-that-costs-money territory here, and indeed have plunged straight into that unhappy valley of software-that-I-need-once-in-a-blue-moon-but-buggers-up-my-machine-to-such-an-extent-that-I-wince. Acrobat Professional is, for those of you unacquainted with Adobe's upgrade paths, ongoingly expensive. It also plays nasty with the other children in the sandpit, and doesn't do anything (except this) that I need.

A minute or two later, after it has managed to load, trashed the screen redraw, bunged the CPU to 100% and asked me to upgrade (not on your nelly, you eight-year-old, tired, hack, although I admit I have considered it), I try printing again.

        Saving a PDF file when printing is not supported. Instead, choose Save from the File menu.

There's that 'not supported' message again. Acrobat aside, I've not yet met an application that can print, but that can't aim it at a pdf. Perhaps I should set up a .pdf printer - but choosing not to address the bristles on that yak for the moment, I choose Save from the File menu, and - astonishingly - I can.

I suspect that by not supported, Adobe actually means restricted to the paid-for version. I suspect (suspicious tester that I am) that Adobe have done this on purpose. The taxman has chosen to provide me with a tool that throws my data away, unless I pay Adobe for the joy of keeping it. I wonder  whether the Taxman intended, condoned, or just didn't notice this behaviour.

Post scriptum***: As it happens, the tool turns out to be a dead end. The unprintable form is for my records only. Once I'm done slapping the desk, I fill in the online form in seconds and I'm done.

* For the initiated, this means that the .pdf (empty, pretty) is accompanied by a .fdf (just the numbers).
** Portable Document Format? My arse. Portable when folded up and shoved in a briefcase.

*** As distinct from PostScript. Print joke. Ah ha ha ha, bonk****.
**** Man laughing his head off.


  1. Ignoring for a minute your post scriptum, this is great: "the taxman has chosen to provide me with a tool that throws my data away, unless I pay Adobe for the joy of keeping it".

    Back to your postscriptum, as I don't think that the taxmen are even aware of the mess those simple PDF settings caused, they may not even be aware that this copy when printed has no real or practical purpose...
    Perhaps(in addition to the broken design) the problem is that no one is talking to anyone else.


  2. I'm talking. Or writing, anyway*. Maybe they'll talk with me. Or at least listen. Cynically, I doubt it - but this blog has drawn interesting fire before, and it may again.

    *as it happens, I was still editing the post when you commented. Ah, the joys of real time. Thank goodness I only re-arranged the sentences around your quote...