What’s the problem with PDF?

PDF Dinosaur

PDF is an unevolved document dinosaur and it really should be extinct.

Yet daily there are organisations everywhere relying heavily on PDF, or “portable document format” files, for online sharing and email distribution of critical information.

Research by Nielsen Norman Group identified “the PDF problem” early on and notes that almost a quarter of a century later, we’re still grappling with PDF’s poor user experience.

As the report points out, the clumsy and cumbersome nature of PDF content can no longer be ignored in a digital-first world. As a way of presenting content online, PDFs simply aren’t up to the task for a whole range of reasons.  Here are just a few for starters: they’re linear, disorienting, jarring to view and slow to load.

What’s more, with limited ability to scan, skim and navigate a truckload of text, users struggle (and often fail) to grasp the “big picture” and waste time scrolling fruitlessly to try to absorb the necessary information. 

It’s a very poor user experience for the reader. And an operational risk nightmare for the writer or publisher. 

Why is PDF not fit for purpose?

Nielsen Norman’s report identified 7 key reasons why PDFs are no longer pulling their weight:

1.     They’re inflexible and limiting

  • PDF was designed for print. It emerged when the internet was relatively young and was mainly used for desktop publishing and document production. Being sized for paper rather than screens, users are faced with an enormous amount of text and images that are difficult to search and tedious to read.
  • Web writing standards are often ignored. All of the things that make documents easy to comprehend and consume – colour, contrast, structure, tags and more – are often absent when published in PDF.
  • Accessibility is an issue. PDFs are designed with a one-size-fits-all mentality. Groups with special needs for navigating and interacting with web pages may be placed at a disadvantage by their inflexibility.

2.     User experience is poor

  • PDFs look off-brand. The format rarely mimics the look and feel of an organisation’s web pages, leaving users feeling like they’re in a parallel universe. Even the most polished PDF can appear awkward on a web browser, seeming unintuitive and unrelated to the main web content.
  • Navigation is limited. It can be downright frustrating to wrangle a significantly sized document, particularly on mobile devices. Unfortunately, users are notoriously unaware of keyboard shortcuts that afford basic navigation.

3.     They’re slower to load

  • Lengthy load times can be frustrating. A browser “crash and burn” is probably no longer a danger but PDFs can still be painfully slow to load both on desktop and mobile. While it’s not necessarily the wheel of doom, it’s certainly the wheel of gloom!
  • PDFs can be a data drain. Users may be hit with extra charges if they’re in a position where they need to use data rather than WiFi to download hefty PDF files.

4.     They promote quantity over quality

  • Many PDF documents are way too long. Unlike web pages, which are designed for economy and have a natural scroll limit, the PDF format lends itself to waffle and overly lengthy content.
  • PDFs often lack structure. Formatting that helps users efficiently skim and scan sections within long-form copy (a central feature of web pages) is often missing from PDF documents. This includes features like chunking, bullets, subheadings, anchor links and accordions.

5.     They’re disorienting

  • It’s easy to get lost in a PDF. The struggle is real when trying to work out where you are in a lengthy PDF document. It’s equally tough trying to get back to something you’ve read previously.
  • PDFs don’t play well with tabs and browser windows. As you’re often in a new browser window or tab, there’s no back button to save you. Or if a PDF opens in the same tab, inadvertently closing it means you need to start browsing from scratch. The problem is even more frustrating on mobile devices.

6.     Navigating a PDF is tricky

  • Most PDF files have no internal navigation. Unlike web pages, their “information architecture” is unclear. Readers have a hard job understanding the type of content available in the PDF and getting to the interesting bits without endless scrolling.
  • Clickable tables of contents don’t solve the issue. The effort spent scanning the table of contents for relevant keywords often fails to pay off with many being misleading. This forces users to wade back through multiple pages to the table of contents to try again.

7.     They’re paper-sized, not screen-sized

  • PDF layouts are optimised for a printed page. This means they’re incompatible with the size and scale of a browser window both on desktop or mobile.
  • Readability is poor. Unreadable fonts and tiny text require the reader to do double time zooming, squinting and scrolling to navigate a PDF, especially on a mobile device.

The perfect PDF alternative is already here

Using PDF documents for online content is a practice that’s clearly out of touch with the needs of the modern digital consumer. At best, it delivers a mediocre experience. At worst, burying information in PDF format will cause many people to “jump ship” and leave your site before even reading it.

Why has PDF endured? The reason is simply that there has been no scalable alternative to putting content online quickly, accurately and cost-effectively. Faced with attaching a 100 page PDF to a web page, or hand building 100 web pages – the solution has always been to attach the PDF.

1WordFlow has solved this issue – with a scalable, fast solution to transforming PDFs to intelligent web pages.

1WordFlow completely removes the constraints of PDF by converting them to a series of web pages that give readers a seamless and interactive online experience. Using cloud-based technology, it quickly replaces long-winded, unsearchable PDF documents with easy-to-read web text with clear formatting, navigation and tagging. Content can be read anywhere, on any device and in any language.

Policies and procedures; shareholder documents; research reports; product specifications; capability statements; case studies and almost any other document housed in PDF form on your site can benefit from 1WordFlow’s transformational technology.

Learn more about how 1WordFlow can solve your PDF problems here.

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