Published on August 13th, 2020 | by Emergent Enterprise0
PDF: Still Unfit for Human Consumption, 20 Years Later
Most of us probably open a pdf file every day. And most of us are probably frustrated with the UX of the document each time. The pdf file lives on in a digital world in its clunky print format as Jakob Nielsen and Anna Kaley share at the Nielsen Norman Group website. They should know. NNG have been leading people in the ways of excellent user experience for decades. May this be a warning to developers of AR & VR software. Don’t even think of displaying pdfs in those worlds. Users don’t want giant documents of information in their field of view so don’t force it on them. Give them only what they need and in an easy-to-access and read format.
Summary: Research spanning 20 years proves PDFs are problematic for online reading. Yet they’re still prevalent and users continue to get lost in them. They’re unpleasant to read and navigate and remain unfit for digital-content display.
Jakob Nielsen first wrote about how PDF files should never be read online in 1996 — only three years after PDFs were invented. Over 20 years later, our research continues to prove that PDFs are just as problematic for users. Despite the evidence, they’re still used far too often to present content online.
PDFs are typically large masses of text and images. The format is intended and optimized for print. It’s inherently inaccessible, unpleasant to read, and cumbersome to navigate online. Neither time nor changes in user behavior have softened our evidence-based stance on this subject. Even 20 years later, PDFs are still unfit for human consumption in the digital space. Do not use PDFs to present digital content that could and should otherwise be a web page.
PDF Usability Issues
The usability problems that PDF files cause on websites or intranets are plentiful:
1. Linear and limiting. PDF files are typically converted from documents that were planned for print or created in print-focused software platforms. When creating PDFs in these tools, it’s unlikely that authors will follow proper guidelines for web writing or accessibility. If they knew these, they’d probably just create a web page in the first-place, not a PDF. As a result, users get stuck with a long, noninclusive mass of text and images that takes up many screens, is unusable for finding a quick answer, and boring to read. There’s more work involved in creating a well-written, accessible PDF than simply exporting it straight from a word processing or presentation platform. Factors such as the use of color, contrast, document structure, tags, and much more must be intentionally addressed.
2. Jarring user experience. PDFs look completely different from typical web pages. They take users out of a familiar context and into one that is outdated and clunky. Even if your PDF looks slick and you think users will be able to navigate with shortcuts like Control or Command + F to find information, think again. The most polished PDFs still look out of place in a web browser and not all users know keyboard shortcuts. We’ve repeatedly observed advanced users get stuck in PDFs and fail to find information this way.
3. Slow to load. While the risk of crashing a user’s browser or computer by serving up a PDF is lower than in years past, PDFs can be excruciatingly slow to load both on desktop and mobile. In one recent study, a cafeteria menu housed in a PDF on an intranet took almost 3 minutes to download. Before giving up on the task, the user said,
“And we’re waiting…we’re waiting… At about this time I’d say, I really don’t care what’s for lunch.”
Additionally, if users are forced to download a hefty PDF using cellular data instead of WiFi, they won’t be happy if they incur extra charges, as a result.
4. Stuffed with fluff. PDFs tend to lack real substance, compared to regular web pages. When you’re building out a web page, you can visibly see how long it’s getting and how far users will have to scroll to consume the content. Methods of structuring and formatting digital content such as chunking, using bullets, subheadlines, anchor links, and accordions help users efficiently skim and scan sections that may contain the answers they seek amid long-form copy. However, in PDFs, those techniques aren’t always used and content creators tend to favor quantity of content over quality and formatting. This leads to overwhelmingly long and inane PDFs.