Donna Baker July 30, 2009
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There’s been a lot of Internet kerfuffle over the years regarding how to use PDF documents -- or even whether to use them at all! Web usability pioneer Jakob Nielsen has long promoted limiting the use of PDF files online to those items users are likely to print. Although his recommendations don’t consider the unique qualities of PDF, there are valid usability issues and large file sharing issues everyone should consider when moving PDF content online.
In 2003, the Internet community was abuzz with discussions of how to use PDF files online. Spearheading the naysayers, Nielsen suggested making PDF content available only when a user needs to print material, and not to use the format for online reading.
In Nielsen’s 2007 update to his “Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design” article, PDF files for online reading rank Number 2, second only to bad search tools.
In spite of the growth in popularity of PDF in this decade, and the increase in user-education opportunities such as Acrobatusers.com, Nielsen still maintains PDF is a big usability problem.
I agree that using PDF online can create information-flow issues. What Nielsen has failed to understand or promote, in my humble opinion, is how authors must handle PDF files for a simple, virtually invisible user experience.
The PDF usability issue arose when users clicked a link that launched a PDF file and a viewer like Adobe or Acrobat Reader without their knowledge. Not only was a helper application required, downloading the file for viewing tied up the browser, thus halting the user’s experience. Further, the layout displays at a size optimized for printing, not online viewing. Worst of all, according to Nielsen, “PDF is an undifferentiated blob of content that's hard to navigate.”
His solutions included reserving PDF for distributing large documents intended for printing only. To read PDF content online, the document needed converting to a “real” Web page -- that is, into HTML.
There’s more, but I think you get the gist of the issue. Yes, PDF is different from an HTML page. Yes, there are situations in which it’s best to use one format or another. But there are certainly ways to make the two formats behave and get along.
I’m sure you’ve all experienced this issue: You’re browsing online and want to check out details of a company’s product. You click the link to open the PDF file and then wait. And wait. Wait long enough, and you see the document. If not, a potential sale may be lost.
When you’re converting source files to PDF and know you’ll be using the documents online, don’t use conversion settings intended for high-quality printing or professional print-shop output. It’s a waste of resources, including your prospective reader’s time. And if you produce a full-color brochure sent as a PDF file to your printer for output, never use the same PDF file online.
You don’t always know where you’ll distribute PDF documents when you first produce them. On the other hand, if you’re splitting a catalog into product lines to download from your company Web site, use the Smallest File Size PDFMaker conversion settings designed for quick downloads.
Regardless of how you intend to distribute a PDF document, take a minute and clean it up. In order of the amount of time and thought required, here are your options:
Figure 1: Evaluate a document’s contents for potential file size savings.
Figure 1 shows four areas of potential savings, including images, fonts, link annotations and embedded files. The example file has internal and external links, and there’s not much opportunity to remove those without disrupting the document’s function. The same applies to the embedded files. There are three attachments, and they’ll stay attached.
On the other hand, images make up over 20 percent of the document total, and fonts make up just less than 20 percent. Both of those items can (and should) be adjusted:
With the file optimized, it’s time to modify some properties for effective online use. How many times have you downloaded an information manual of some type only to find there’s no bookmark structure available? It’s frustrating, time-consuming and unnecessary.
Lack of navigation is another bone of contention cited by anti-PDF folks. Again, it’s a valid issue, but one with a simple remedy. Sure, it takes time to add and configure bookmarks, but if providing information to readers is the point of the exercise, take the time to offer readers a means to locate content easily. It’s unnecessary to bookmark each topic or heading level, but at a minimum, add bookmarks for each section title (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Insert the appropriate bookmark hierarchy.
With a navigation structure in place, head into the Properties dialog box to make some final adjustments. Choose File > Properties to open the dialog box. Here are my recommendations: