July 15, 2003

PDF Is 99% Bad

Jakob Nielsen’s latest Alertbox column is a real “Well, duh” article about PDFs.

PDF is good for printing, but that’s it. Don’t use it for online presentation.

Is Jakob repeating himself here? It seems like I’ve read this same thing from him four or five times now. Maybe he keeps coming back to the same topics because there’s always new people getting into the field, and he wants to make sure they hear the same messages. After all, if somebody just subscribed to Alertbox last week, this is new information to them! To the rest of us, it reads like something he tossed off Sunday night because he realized a deadline was coming up.

The message is solid, though. PDFs are bad for reading on screen. I’ve seen a couple of PDFs that had an almost-square page that fit just right onto the screen. Seth Godin’s 99 Cows is one. But even then, PDFs still work with the concept of a limited size “page”. If each “chunk” is small, it works well. In 99 Cows, each “cow” is less than one page in length. So you can click through from 1 to 99 and find one per page. If the chunk is larger, you run into paging issues. In 99 Cows, the introduction runs long and has to be spread over three pages. That’s fine if it’s a printed material, but this book is meant to be read on the computer. It’s even full of hyperlinks to web pages. I suppose it would have been possible to put the introduction on one page that measured 8.5″x18″. But then that would have gotten confusing. There are no easy answers in PDF.

With printing, you don’t have a choice about page size, since your book or magazine is only so many inches big. Most content can’t be shoehorned into that form easily, so you need to spread one chunk of information over several pages. But when you’re reading on screen, and especially on a website, HTML is very attuned to the concept of “unlimited scroll”. You may still want to break your content into several pages (Jakob advocates this religiously, because “users don’t like to scroll”), but on the Web you can break it at a certain number of paragraphs, or break it up by section, instead of being forced to have a break every 11 inches. That is one of the advantages of the Web, that the form can adapt to fit the content, instead of the other way around. PDFs do away with that advantage, so there is no reason, aside from laziness, to deliver material meant to be read on screen in a PDF.

And of course, at the end of the day Jakob has to be Jakob, so he titled his article “PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption”. When you’ve built a name on sensationalism, why stop now?

Filed under The Computer Vet Weblog

Comments (1)

Comments RSS - Write Comment

  1. Dave says:

    “Users don't like to scroll” goes against the grain of Edward Tufte, who encourages web designers to put as much on one page as possible. One reason: Because if you limit the amount of information on a page, wasting the space on the page, and the user has to click a lot to get to some information three or four pages in, it gets easy to get lost in the information and whatever the web designer/website is trying to communicate could get lost.

    (But if push comes to shove, I don't like to scroll either. *grin*)

    Posted July 16, 2003 @ 1:05 pm

Write Comment