Over the last few months the issue of formats has come up a few times, when librarians, educators and marketeers have all wanted to use PDFs to deliver information to the user. I thought now would be an opportune time for me to state why, in many cases this is a bad idea (even if done with the best of intentions).
What the experts say
Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, July 14, 2003 – PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption
Usability guru Jakob Neilsen is forthright in his appraisal of PDF as a format on web sites.
Joe Clark’s 2005 article about PDF accessibility included here to refer to the section where Joe clearly elucidates why most things should be HTML and even better has written a thorough list of exceptions. If your information doesn’t fall into one of these categories then you really should be using HTML.
Where we are going wrong
Of the many PDFs that are currently available on our various web sites very few can really justify the format that they are in if we use the criteria laid out in the articles linked to previously. I believe that a combination of overstating the role of a particular visual style and understating the inconvenience to the user leads to a situation where uploading a document suffices. I don’t believe this is the case. If we want to provide the best experience for users then we need to be making that extra (small) effort to put the information in the right format. It’s not that hard, and everyone benefits.
Issues with ISSUU
A beta subject guides page has been created by the proactive librarians that we have at Glamorgan that uses issuu.com , a service for hosting PDFs that wraps them up in flash, and add various user interface feature like page turning animations, zooming, various views and useful social features like commenting and sharing. I think it’s unfortunate that the useful features have been mingled with the user interface fluff that actually makes the information harder to retrieve.
Putting it into practice
To show what’s possible I downloaded a PDF of Lighting Design and Technology & Live Event Technology from a Subject guides page, and spent an hour or two copying and pasting to create an HTML version. The pdf is 115k to download. The HTML is 41.5k. In addition to the smaller file size the user does not need to wait for the PDF reader to open up, can navigate via a table of contents and most usefully can click on the many URLs to go straight to the info. The HTML format enables to the user to directly interact rather than read, then copy the links.
It may not have the visual impact of the issuu PDF version, but it is more functional, in the browser window that people are used to. Also, none of this precludes making the pdf available for those people that wish to download it.
Hope that people find this a useful position statement, and would love to see some response in the comments.