Thursday, November 09, 2006

PDF sucks for web usability

Why on earth would anyone put web information into a PDF file? "For pretty formatting," someone says. Since when is online information about pretty formatting? Who cares how "pretty" it looks when you print it out? Most users will, in most cases, not print it out anyway.

Graphics and layout can be accomplished via HTML. Users can easily and quickly copy and paste HTML text, navigate it easily, and read it in their browser windows.

PDF is not a web format. It's a final display format, for printers (perhaps). Since PDF is not a data interchange format, it's a real pain to copy and paste or convert it to other file formats. This seems to be due to its core PostScript architecture.

Users go to web sites to quickly find relevant information to view. Forcing users to download a PDF file is just wrong. Why can't you put the information in HTML like a normal person? Chances are, users simply do not care how fancy you formatted the information, They Just Want to Read It.

By using PDF, you are putting impediments in the way of users who are seeking information about you or your products. PDF files are the opposite of web usable documentation, since they violate the expectations of users.

There may be some cases where you might need to put paper documents into PDF files. But so far, I have never had any occasion to do so, and I'll bet you haven't either. Perhaps a downloadable ebook or some graphic or special layout intensive document, with charts and graphs or what have you. But not for standard text.

I recently printed out a PDF file and it was ugly. The document was page after page of huge font, Power Point (another sick spectacle) type slide show presentation. But all I wanted was the pure, raw information. There were no graphics. Just text. But I wasted toner and paper and time printing out the stupid thing, and now it's very awkward to read. A few statements per page, in big jumbo print.

Put your information, whenever possible, right there in your web site, as HTML. You're shooting yourself in the foot when you force users to jump through burning hoops to get information they need, or data you want them to have. Especially if you're selling products, services, or consulting.

"PDF Unfit for Human Consumption" by Jakob Nielsen.

"Avoid PDF for On-Screen Reading" by Jakob Nielsen.

"Gateway Pages Prevent PDF Shock" by Jakob Nielsen.

" PDF Sucks" by MobileRead.

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