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Portable Document Format: still crappy after all these years

Earlier this year, the Nielsen Norman Group repeated a study they first did in 1996 on the usability of PDF documents. As they've now found three times, making PDFs instead of actual web pages yields a horrible experience for users:

Jakob Nielsen first wrote about how PDF files should never be read online in 1996 — only three years after PDFs were invented. Over 20 years later, our research continues to prove that PDFs are just as problematic for users. Despite the evidence, they’re still used far too often to present content online.

PDFs are typically large masses of text and images. The format is intended and optimized for print. It’s inherently inaccessible, unpleasant to read, and cumbersome to navigate online. Neither time nor changes in user behavior have softened our evidence-based stance on this subject. Even 20 years later, PDFs are still unfit for human consumption in the digital space. Do not use PDFs to present digital content that could and should otherwise be a web page.

PDF files are typically converted from documents that were planned for print or created in print-focused software platforms. When creating PDFs in these tools, it’s unlikely that authors will follow proper guidelines for web writing or accessibility. If they knew these, they’d probably just create a web page in the first-place, not a PDF. As a result, users get stuck with a long, noninclusive mass of text and images that takes up many screens, is unusable for finding a quick answer, and boring to read. There’s more work involved in creating a well-written, accessible PDF than simply exporting it straight from a word processing or presentation platform. Factors such as the use of color, contrast, document structure, tags, and much more must be intentionally addressed.

Yah, so, don't use them.

Comments (1) -

  • David Harper

    12/22/2020 7:48:10 AM +00:00 |

    I beg to offer an alternative view of PDFs.  They have their place in the digital world, albeit not as a replacement for web pages.  My background is in mathematics and physics.  HTML was, and remains, badly deficient in its ability to display mathematical formulae.  I still shudder to recall the days when the only way to display mathematics on a web page was to typeset it using TeX, then generate a GIF or PNG from that, and embed the image in the web page.  Things aren't much better today, and the TeX-to-PNG hack is still used by publishers of online scientific journals.

    PDFs also have a useful role as an alternative to e-book formats such as MOBI and EPUB, which were designed with narrative text in mind.  These formats, like HTML, fall short when the content includes mathematics or even structured text such as fragments of programs.  The latter deficiency is annoying enough when a block of (for example) Java code gets re-flowed as if it were plain text.  If the language is Python, where indentation is critical, collapsing multiple spaces is catastrophic.  So I'm thankful that IT publishers such as Apress offer most of their programming books in PDF format as well as EPUB or MOBI, because I know that the PDF version will preserve the formatting of code examples.

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