Pretty Darn Frustrating: why PDFs are rubbishSarah Oxley, September 2020
The PDF is a Persistent Displeasing Feature of the web.
Introduced by Adobe in the early 1990s, the PDF was created to allow people to share text and graphic documents – like newspapers, manuals and other print media – via email, to print locally.
Fast forward thirty years and there’s very little need to clog up our inboxes, or weigh down our websites with terabytes of PDF files, nor to print out lengthy reports (or newspaper clippings). A well-designed web page almost always does the job much better.
Why is it then that so many organisations find it difficult to get over their PDF addiction? Content professionals and digital communicators continue to spend hours painstakingly laying out their organisation’s content into slickly-designed-but-inaccessible PDFs, duplicating their website content in the process. Why? Is it misplaced nostalgia for print media, or the misconception that people take print formats more seriously?
The truth is, PDFs have long outstayed their welcome and it’s time for us to move on.
For content that is genuinely designed to be printed, like a poster, PDF is a useful format. For pretty much everything else, it’s crap.
The (many) problems with PDFs
1. They’re inaccessible
The PDF wasn’t created with a smooth in-browser reading experience in mind. They’re not responsive, and are particularly difficult to read on a mobile – 4pt text, anyone?
For blind people, deaf people, and other users who rely on assistive technology to automatically increase text size or read text aloud, older PDFs can cause big problems. Some won’t work with screen readers, which means jumping from a webpage to a PDF breaks the flow and prevents people from accessing the content within. Not cool.
On top of that, they’re hard to search and difficult to translate.
Trying to read a PDF laid out as a print document on a screen is a terrible experience. Why is print-thinking still so embedded in so many organizations? pic.twitter.com/9wEKt6xY88
— Gerry McGovern (@gerrymcgovern) August 26, 2020
2. They’re a source of unreliable, out-of-date information
Once a PDF has been created and uploaded, where does it go? Who downloads it? How long do they keep it on their desktop? You will never know.
After publishing a PDF online you lose control of that content. And while an out-of-date webpage can be directly edited in your content management system, for a PDF, original InDesign or Word files need to be recovered, tweaked and reuploaded. And there’s no mass-edit magic or recall for all those locally saved versions.
3. They’re so Y2K
People are used to seamlessly clicking through websites at a fast pace and will become quickly frustrated by bumps in the road. Suddenly coming across a strangely-branded, navigation-void PDF in the middle of a digital experience screams of last century.
Presenting information in PDFs is an old-fashioned approach to content delivery that reduces trust in your organisation.
4. They’re difficult to collaborate and iterate on
The PDF creation process is particularly susceptible to a long and winding workflow. In an ideal world, the content is finalised, and the designer can take it away and work their magic in InDesign.
More often than not, however, once everything is ready to publish, well-meaning colleagues make multiple edits as comments on the PDF itself, which then need to be carefully cross referenced with the design file. And a last-minute edit adding a few extra lines of text can throw a carefully laid out document completely out of kilter.
5. They’re time-consuming to produce
Even the most experienced designer will spend considerable time puzzling over how to logically distribute content across multiple A4 pages. Spending hours adapting content to work within the restrictions of this inflexible format makes no sense unless it’s actually going to be printed out on A4 paper.
6. They’re an excuse to launch and leave
As content professionals, we’re concerned with the creation and maintenance of accessible, up-to-date content. PDFs don’t support this goal for all the reasons already mentioned. Because the PDF is a print format, it inspires print-think.
Once published, print content isn’t designed to be regularly revisited and maintained. Applying this mentality to online content is dangerous for users and for organisations.
7. They make copying and pasting painful
You wouldn’t be the first to want to quickly grab some text, copy it and paste it into something you’re working on. This is easy breezy from an HTML page. Not so with a PDF, as you’ll know if you’ve ever spent time cursing loudly while deleting line breaks.
Long-form content reports
Your colleagues have spent months researching and writing up a lengthy report only to banish it to a PDF. You’ll never really know if anyone has spent time reading it, even if you can track downloads.
The alternative: A long-form article, a series of blog posts or a set of webpages, all easily accessible directly on your website. Or, if you have a lot of content to share and it enhances the user experience, create a purpose-built site, like Habitat for Humanity did for their memorable 2019 annual report. An ebook can also make longer form pieces responsive, translatable, searchable, and easy to use with tools like screen readers. The modern web design process, from Webflow, is a nice example.
Natively digital forms
Ever had to download a PDF form, complete it in Acrobat, resave, upload and return by email? It’s long-winded to say the least.
The alternative: An online form, created using a tool like Google Forms, Typeform or Survey Monkey, provides automatic data collection, and the possibility to present and record data privacy options. Embed the form into your website, or share a link. Simple.
Infographics as images
Infographics hidden away in odd-shaped PDFs are not going to have the impact you intended.
The alternative: A vector or png file uploaded to a webpage designed to present images will do a much better job.
… Digital anything, actually
Pretty much all other content created for use online will find a more accessible home than a PDF.
Please Disappear Forever
PDFs are bad for the content, bad for users and bad for producers and publishers. Whether or not your product, advocacy or legal team agree, it’s time to challenge print-think in digital spaces and champion a more accessible and easier-to-maintain internet for people everywhere.
In 2014, The Washington Post reported that nearly one-third of the World Bank’s PDF reports had never been downloaded.
Gerry McGovern explains how print culture is holding organisations back.
The UK Government Digital Service takes a similar line. Neil Williams wrote about why they’re not huge fans of PDFs on GOV.UK in 2018.
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