Adobe PDF files are for preserving the format of a print document – a leaflet or poster for example – but that format is totally unsuitable for the web.
A poster is meant to attract attention on a wall. On the web you already have the attention of your website visitor.
Yet still website owners think PDF documents are an acceptable way to convey information.
In recent weeks I’ve seen them appear as:
- A buying guide for an online shop
- A product brochure
- A ‘user guide’ for online banking
- Several newsletters
- An infographic
- Yes, that’s right. An infographic!
So what’s the problem with PDFs?
PDFs are the enemy of usability. They simply do not take into account how people actually use the web.
They tell your website visitors that you cannot be bothered enough about them to put the information in a format suitable for the web.
Actually the content of your PDF can easily go into a web page. All it takes is a little thought and consideration.
Product brochures as PDFs
PDF Product brochures do not work online.
There is a massive difference between how people use a product brochure and the way they use a web page.
Throwing the brochure up on your website and forgetting about it is just lazy – do you expect people to print the whole thing out?
Jakob Nielson, the usability researcher, is scathing of them. According his research web users hate PDFs with a vengeance.
This is because:
- Users have to wait for their PDF reader to start, interrupting the flow of web pages
- Once it starts they are presented with a document with no site navigation and no way back to the homepage
- The PDF reader has different controls from a web browser – no back button, for example – and this can be very intimidating for web users who lack confidence
- PDFs are not usually presented in a web friendly way – for example they include long, chunky paragraphs with no whitespace and nothing that aids speedy web reading.
- PDFs are also set up to fit a piece of paper – typically A4 – and not a computer screen, which makes it very difficult to view on a computer, no matter what size you view it
- PDFs are often huge file sizes – they can easily be 10Mb or more – and often those who insist on using them don’t tell you the file size. So you can click on them and suddenly find you are downloading a massive file instead of quickly loading a web page.
Nielson found that users were so anti-PDF that they will avoid clicking on a link to one. This really defeats the point, surely?
Gerry McGovern is hired by organisations worldwide to make their websites work for their customers and in particular improve sales.
Surprise, surprise, he hates PDFs too and condemns them as a classic case of organisation-centred thinking.
PDFs are thrown up onto a website because it saves the organisation time to do it, but in doing so it costs the visitor – or customer – time.
In a large public sector organisation where I used to work the web team were often sent PDFs with the instruction that so-and-so wanted this ‘put on the website’.
This was all part of the mentality that websites were there to be filled with more and more rubbish, and nothing to do with making things easy for website users.
Those attitudes are supposedly ok in the public sector but if you are a small business the visitors to your website always have a choice – they can go to your competitors.
Do yourself and them a favour and stamp out those PDFs.
- Jakob Neilson – PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption
- Gerry McGovern: PDFs are Evil, Lazy, Slothful and Sinful