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Jakob Says PDFs Unfit for Human Consumption

 3:41 am on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption [useit.com]



 4:16 am on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

100% agree with Jakob this time.

Those things are the worst. I cringe every time I need to get info out of one. Or when I carelessly click on one in google and a the reader starts it's tedious opening. argggg! I'm getting angry just thinking about it! :(


 4:22 am on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

PDF was never really meant to be viewed on line. Its primarily a way to DISTRIBUTE "formatted as the layout editor wanted it" documents on line or in digital "electronic" media like CD. It is especially useful for scientific articles, articles with formulaes or using rare fonts, and articles with complex diagrams. For that purpose it is very well suited, and they forged their market niche very early, well before the Web became mainstream.

PDF is meant to be printed out, and read like a REAL book! ;) You can distribute it on the web, but reading it online? that's not what it was designed for. Fonts look bad and unclear, and its very cluncky.

To me Adobe has spun the functionality of PDF way beyond its unqiue function and intention, to grab some of the Web business. Ive always been perplexed why URL's (not internal anchors which make a lot of sense) are hyperlinked in PDF documents. PDF just does not have the flexibility and fast loading attributes of HTML and other formats to be used a a basis for "browsing".


 4:29 am on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

PDFs definitely have their usefulness, but it is not in place of an html page. I also cringe when I inadvertantly click on a text link, assuming it is a regular webpage, only to see the Adobe Acrobat logo pop up as it loads, checks for updates, then finally brings up the pdf within the web browser. Especially back when I was on a dialup, and the whole process could take 30 mins depending on the file size, if it didn't crash my computer first. Now that I am on cable, I am not nearly as grumpy about it, but it still ticks me off. A little warning that the link opens a pdf document would be nice ;)

Personally, my pet peeve is the fact that IE automatically opens pdf files within the browser window (when the user has Adobe Acrobat or Adobe Reader installed) rather than prompting the user to either open the file in the browser, or to save it to the hard drive first.


 4:51 am on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

Much Jakobado about nothing IMO.

Only about 2% of Google's index is in pdf format and they are mainly used for:

- Lengthy second tier back-up info
- Research papers
- Manuals
- (Email) quotations

With three main objectives - equal printing format, secured info and small(er) file size.

In other words - nearly nobody really uses it for primary online presentations anyway.


 5:02 am on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

agreed vitaplease, but the problem is that the default settings and environoment usually means PDF are delivered up for reading online which is not what they were designed for. Like Jenstar, seeing the memory of my workstation being gulped and everthing stopping for a while while acrobat loads up is not good! In our own site we make clear what are pdf links so people can decide to right click and save. But that is not the usual case with the web as a whole. 2% sounds like a lot. That means one out of 50 docs in google is a PDF? All the more reason for this problem being a real problem!


 5:04 am on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

I must be bumpin across a bleeping large percentage of them. well, I guess 2 percent of 4 billion is a heck of alot of them out there. guess it isn't time to play the lottery. :(


 5:10 am on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

In our own site we make clear what are pdf links so people can decide to right click and save.

Trust me, a text link with "Right click to save", along with detailed instructions on what precisely the difference is between a left and right click, still results in countless people doing a regular left click. These people then email to complain because their computer "freezes" when trying to load a lengthy ebook on their 5 year old computer through IE.

And unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to code the link so it will save the file (or even prompt to save) rather than automatically open it in the browser window. As I said, it is a major pet peeve of mine ;)


 5:28 am on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

PDF files are gross, there's no other word to describe them. They're practically impossible to read and have to be the most annoying, cumbersome thing around, imho. A usability nightmare.

My stupid question of the day:

How can Google know what's in those things, since they're not normal markup? Is it just whatever has Monika's or Kleinberg's name on it, or is it all PR, inbound link text and page titles altogether, to the exclusion of everything else?


 5:55 am on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

I love PDFs when I find PDFs while doing research the majority of my finds are pure information such as you'd find in a book. As far as reading online, print it out, im not a ebook type of guy.


 6:23 am on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

Umm have to agree, PDF’s aren’t fun. As I was reading the article it struck me you could replace PDF with www*macromedia.com and have a whole new article ;)



 6:30 am on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

My normal answer to anything Nielsen says is 'Sinner_G says Jakob sucks', but in this case I (grudgingly) have to agree, although I'm with vitaplease when he states there is not that much of a problem. In most professionally made sites, PDFs are used only to give results of studies or lengthy research or investor relationship results. In these cases they are normally meant to be downloaded and also marked clearly as PDFs.


 6:32 am on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

well there is now word documents too. click on those and word starts up! Basically Ses index all type of files, but i think is is up to the webmaster to make it as obvious as possible what will happen when somone clicks on a link, whatever format it is in. One of our sites is for researchers and boffins. They are very used to pdf's, want them, but know what to expect. As far as i know almost all download and print.

To a large extent i think it's the webmasters responsibility, and should be part of their usability concerns, to make sure that their visitors get their info in the easiest and most effective way.

SEs should do the same and i think it is pretty obvious when a SERP is a PDF file in google. It does not let you know of the implications. Maybe a small mouseover can inform clickers like "this (pdf) (word) (flash) document may open in it's native application and take longer to download" etc.


 1:01 pm on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

This discussion about PDFs is interesting, and took quite a practical turn:)

What we do on our site, so users get happy:

Most of our documents published (I mean, longer documents, meant for online/offline reading and/or printing) are made in two versions - HTML (better for online reading and search within), and PDF (for downloading/saving/printing). They have a little icon on the side - HTML is IE gif, and PDF is Acrobat Reader's icon gif. Also, when user "mouseovers":) a link, which leads to a PDF file, a hint like "PDF file" pops-up (or sometimes like "PDF file, 255 kB") [ a href="somefile.pdf" title="PDF file" etc. :-) ]

I think this improves a lot the usability of our site.

Experienced users can rightclick the link and save the file first, if they want; non-experienced at least will have the info about the file and its size, so if they want, they can decide no to click on the link; finally, users, which want only to browse through the document, can select the HTML version, and those wanting to print the document later, the PDF version.

Hope this little hint helps:)))


 1:07 pm on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

As I was reading the article it struck me you could replace PDF with www*macromedia.com and have a whole new article ;)

Right on the money - except he won't be biting the hand that's feeding him at the moment:


Maybe this is a warning shot across Adobe's bow - letting them know they really need to hire a "usability expert".



 1:12 pm on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

Had missed that press release. To me it sounds like Macromedia thought Nielsen's critics could be bad for them, so they bought him off.


 1:14 pm on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

I agree Sinner_G, and I think he's setting up Adobe for another big payoff...


 1:16 pm on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

I must say though, PDF is a neccesary evil sometimes.

Its the best way to present an "original" scan of a document. Many sites use strange java based "tif" viewers in lieu of publishing a downloadable PDF-- they are much worse then Acrobat when it comes to usability IMO.

Or am I missing out on another way to publish the "originals"? Anyone have any suggestions?


 1:20 pm on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

If your site has server side scripting you can send .pdf as a file attachement so it will ask to be saved. You need to send headers like:

header("Content-Type: application/octet-stream");
header("Content-Length: " . filesize($filepath));
header("Content-Disposition: attachment; filename=" . $filename);

And then send the file.


 1:27 pm on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

>> there is nothing you can do to code the link so it will save the file

I might be wrong, but i think there is a document.Save and even a SaveAs method in VBscript. I think it might be employed like this, but perhaps some experimentation is required:


or perhaps even: document.execCommand('SaveAs','pdf','doc.pdf')

Of course, only IE browsers understand this.


[edited by: claus at 1:29 pm (utc) on July 15, 2003]


 1:29 pm on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

IMHO the entire article in question (and many similar one) can easily be replaced by a statement like "mobile phones stink, for they are likely to break if you try do drive a nail home with them".
If someone tries to use anything (in our case the file format) for the purpose it was never meant to fulfill, no need to yell about poor product quality and problems arising.

For me the format is perfect, provided that you download it (instead of opening in a browser window), print it, then read it. That's what it was developed for.


 1:42 pm on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

I say the criticism should fall on Microsoft's door for "integrating" this junk into the browser window.


 1:51 pm on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

How so, Tedster? It's the "reader" plugin that uses IE to display - I don't think MS forced Adobe into that decision - but of course I'm not privy to all their machinations...


 1:55 pm on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

I agree with PDF not being a good replacement for web pages for purposes of online viewing.

But there are purposes (documents that are typically used as a printout, e.g. data sheets) where PDF leaves HTML pages in the dust where usability is concerned.

What I think all web sites using PDF documents should do:

- use the PDF symbol to alert users that a link does lead to a PDF doc
- mention the file size.

I have got a 264 kByte technical paper in PDF format on my personal site, linked from a HTML page containing much the same content. The PDF version is much better to use a printout, and it is also much smaller than the Word file it was made from (in my experience this is particularly true for graphics-heavy Word docs.)

According to logs a proportion (about a fifth= of downloads are aborted. I blame the lack of a visual progress indicator in the Arcobat client for that: narrowband users see a white window for quite a few seconds without realizing that the Acrobat client works normally.


 2:10 pm on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

Marcia: How can Google know what's in those things, since they're not normal markup?

Marcia, PDFs have text which is searchable, and Google can read this text (much like DOC and other non-HTML file types.

Personally, I love PDFs for very specific uses. An online brochure or product sheet is a good example - a visitor can open or download the file and print a precisely formatted copy that looks exactly like what the designer intended.

I'm making increasing use of PDFs. Instead of mass-printing color flyers (that will be obsolete before they are used up), we now design each flyer as a PDF - internally, we print out color laser copies on high-quality stock for use in quotes, etc.; we can put the same document on the web for easy access by web visitors. The best part is that it is never obsolete - as things change, it is trivial to republish the PDF.

I certainly don't see PDFs as a substitute for web pages, but they definitely have their place.


 2:16 pm on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

The only thing I use pdf for is to quickly proof .ps files before sending them to our printer for printing 4 color process work.


 2:26 pm on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

I agree with most posts here. PDFs are good for certain things but really are very different to web pages. They don't really belong on the web generally it's just a place to download them from before printing them off.

I read this article yesterday and like many of his other articles my first thought was "that makes sense" and my second thought was "that's because it's ******* obvious!"


 2:39 pm on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

I am hardly a "webmaster"; grad school requires me to spend a fair amount of time typesetting documents, so this is what I know about PDF quality:

Often, text in a pdf file is unreadable onscreen, say using Acrobat Reader because either Acrobat Distiller or Ghostscript created the file with Type3 fonts instead of Type1. And, Acrobat does a really poor job of displaying Type3 fonts *onscreen*. It's fine when printed out, but yes, it's a pain for those who want to simply preview, or even read a significant portion of the file onscreen.

This is a frequent gripe among the typesetting community (esp. TeX users).


 3:08 pm on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

PDFs are good for certain things...

I agree. A good example is a downloadable User Manual. This is the kind of thing that needs to be printed and kept handy.

Many lengthy reports that are meant to be read in hard copy by virtue of their size, like the BBC PDF documenting their website redesign.

But there are many many instances where a document shouldn't be pdf'd. A good example is an online version of a newsletter. It's either laziness or technical ignorance to take a one page document and convert it to pdf instead of copy-pasting it into a web page template.


 3:08 pm on Jul 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

I've noticed an increasing use of pdf files. I like pdf files when I can save them to my computer for later reading, but the last few that have opened in my browser have disallowed saving.

I don't know if I could've done a right-click and saved or not, because I didn't try, but it irritated me that I had the document open in my browser and then couldn't save it to read later. I had to zoom in until it had scrollbars all around and then scan it.

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