Nielsen reams PDF

July 16, 2003

Jakob Nielsen's latest alertbox column, PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption (Alertbox), is a rant on the PDF format's inherent lack of usability.

While I agree with much of what he says, since PDFs are best used for documents that you want to preserve formatting for printing and not for documents which are to be be regularly viewed on screen, I take exception with his comments on the format's inherent navigational shortcomings.

He states that even when a PDF file has its own navigation aides, they don't typically help because they’re nonstandard and based on a paper metaphor rather than hypertext navigation.

First, I'd say that Acrobat Reader's navigational aides, due to the application's widespread distribution, are quite familiar to many users. The application's "paper metaphor" can, admittedly, get in the way of efficient screen reading of PDFs, but this is quite useful for PDFs best use, the transmission of documents for which you wish to preserve a set print format (like forms). Finally, I've found that, through the use of hyperlinks and side-panel table of contents, I've been able to produce PDF files that have been praised for their ease of navigation.

Overall, I must agree with the gist of this article, since too often PDFs are thrown up on a site because it's easier to simply hit a "create PDF" button than transforming content into a usable HTML format.

Posted by Andrew at July 16, 2003 06:33 PM