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Downloading a PDF file from a website

What is easiest for the visitor?

9:44 am on Sep 20, 2006 (gmt 0)

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I am intending to put up a reservation form as a PDF file on my website. I need a client signature on this form for it to be valid so the client needs to fax, post or scan and email the form back to me.

Downloading/viewing a PDF file on the web is a struggle for some web users in terms of usability (when Acrobat loads the top navigation is different). I want to make the process as easy as possible.

Some things I thought are:
1. State that it is a PDF file, the file size, how long it would take to download at 56 Kbp and have the Acrobat logo by the link.
2. Mention that the user can right click on the link and save the destination where they would like on their computer.
3. I intend to offer to physically post or email the reservation form to people if they do not want download it.

My questions are:
1. Can PDF files be viewed by the program Acrobat only? I seem to recall reading somewhere that this is not the case. I am would like to provide a link to the Acrobat site so people can download the Acrobat Reader.

2. Might it be an idea to have the same reservation form in a Word file? This program is more familiar to computer users although the form could be altered in Word.

3. I am not a Mac user, but some people who want to download the reservation form will be. How would a Mac user go about downloading a PDF file from my website (obviously, they would not right click anywhere)? Is it helpful or a hinderance to differentiate between Mac and PC users with something like this?

I look forward to your thoughts and recommendations.

3:06 pm on Sept 20, 2006 (gmt 0)

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To address your questions in order:

1. There are probably other programs on PCs that can open pdfs. On Macs Preview is the default app for pdfs, unless the user has changed it. If the user has installed Reader, Reader often "takes over" that file association.

2. Offering the form in Word as an option isn't a bad idea -- people who have Word will be able to use it. (It sounds like you understand that offering it only in Word would be problematic.) It's possible to set a Word document as read-only, so that people couldn't change it.

3. Many many Mac users right-click. I use a 5-button mouse with scroll wheel on my Mac, and I right-click all the time. And middle-click, and scroll, etc. PDFs are not a problem for Mac users (no more so than for PC users, anyway), and there's no need to differentiate between the two. You might include in your right-click instructions that Mac users with a one-button mouse need to "control-click" or "click-and-hold" to download the file. (Control-click and click-and-hold both emulate a right-click.)

With a regular click on a link to a pdf file, whether or not it opens in the user's browser, opens in Reader as a separate app, or downloads to their computer is entirely up to how the user has their browser configured. You could zip it to force a download, but then your users would have to find it and unzip it before they could open it -- one more step, and one more place for user confusion to creep in. You can also user server-side scripting to add headers to force the pdf to download rather than open -- but then you're interfering with the people who want it to open in their browser window.

You're on the right track -- tell them it's a pdf, tell them how big it is, tell them how to right-click and choose where to save it. Offering to snail-mail it to them is a nice bonus. But no matter what you do, you'll get users who don't know how to download it, or they download it but don't realize it (and they keep clicking and clicking), or they know they downloaded it but they don't know where to find it.

4:26 pm on Sept 20, 2006 (gmt 0)

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When using a PDF file, it is important to clearly mark the link as being to a PDF file within the link text itself. As you suggest, you can add a link to download Acrobat Reader but most users will already have it or an equivalent (I use KPDF under KDE).

I wouldn't recommend using Microsoft Word as an appropriate format. By far the best open and widely-supported format is HTML - you can link to a simple (noindexed) HTML page which contains a form that the user can fill out and print via their browser. In terms of usability, the interface is familiar, no plugins are required, and you can have a blank action on the form and a submit button with window.print as an onclick event.

8:47 am on Sept 22, 2006 (gmt 0)

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Thanks for your help.
HTML - of course! I could just make a new webpage.

Thanks for the heads up about Mac users. I thought they all use a mouse with one button.

10:43 pm on Sept 23, 2006 (gmt 0)

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What I typically do with links to PDF files is, like encyclo mentioned, use the word "PDF" in the link. For example:

Printable Gift Certificate (PDF)

If by "Word" format you mean "Microsoft Word Document" (.doc), yes I would probably avoid that too. However, a Rich-Text document isn't a bad idea. It is widely supported in all sorts of office type software products, and most OSs (all?) come with an RTF capable reader by default.