PDF: Fit for Human Consumption *if* designed properly

Editor’s Note: Since we first published information about, and our response to, the recent column by usability guru Jakob Nielsen titled ‘PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption,’ we’ve received additional commentaries from experienced users who disagreed with Nielsen — and in some cases, told him so directly. With permission, we’re publishing another of the latter communications below.

Have you created or seen other good examples
of PDFs designed for on-screen use?

If so, we’d love to hear from you and to see some examples, along with a few relevant details about the authoring and/or on-screen use of the document. We’ll periodically post additional examples to help illustrate that many of the criticisms made by Jakob Nielsen (and others) about PDF usability can be overcome by appropriate design and navigation.

In the rebuttal below from Steve Borsch, he cites specific applications and examples of online PDFs [SEE links to PDF samples] that help to illustrate our previously published opinion that Nielsen’s generalization ignores the importance of designing for on-screen use. Inexplicably — and unlike his ‘Alertbox’ column usability criticisms that usually focus on HTML — Nielsen blames faulty design of and poor navigation in PDF files on the format rather than on the author.

Dr. Nielsen,

There are links all over the place from your July 14th article entitled,
‘PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption.’ Sorry for the lack of brevity in this
email, but I smile when I realize how your characterization of PDF has hit a
nerve with many — including me.

I beg to differ on the ‘unfit’ characterization as we have successfully
created, delivered and sold PDF-based ebooks OPTIMIZED FOR ONLINE
PRESENTATION…and customers love them.

My wife’s sixteen year old publishing/consulting company, Marketing
Directions, Inc., advises manufacturers, retailers and interior designers
on trends in home furnishings. She enjoys virtually
every major (and minor) furniture, lighting, accessory, and ancillary
company that is interested in the latest-and-greatest trend information from
around the world — so as to be able to make informed strategic, product
development or retail inventory decisions.

For years, she’s delivered high-end print newsletters such as her flagship
product, The Trend Curve™; printed color reports and numerous other
paper-based materials. Since color is key to her audience and photos of
paramount importance, the cost-of-goods for her publications have always
been high, necessitating high price points. During this difficult economic
time — and customer’s demand for time-sensitive trend information from
major international and domestic markets while requiring less expensive
alternatives — we embarked on a quest to find an innovative delivery
vehicle for her content.

So two years ago, I searched for alternatives. What about delivering PDF
ebooks? I always hated — and concur with others comments on your site —
that it was a royal pain to read designed-for-print documents (often with
two or three columns!!) which forced the reader to scroll down, then scroll
up, and scroll down…and often the PDF’s were NOT in single page mode so
they’d jump automatically to the next page when you DID scroll down! Argghh!

So here’s what we did….

TrendCurve sample

Our PDF ebooks are in landscape mode and automatically ‘Fit Page’ so ends up
being pleasing to the eye and readable in 800×600 or greater resolutions. We
typically use a minimum of a sans serif font at 14 point. Heavy with photos
and light on text, they’re optimized for on-screen viewing and use. There is
embedded navigation (all Table of Contents links are hot and there is a
‘Return to Table of Contents’ link at the bottom of each page).

We hear often from our customers (especially the big corporations), that
they routinely hook a laptop to a projector and go through the PDF ebook in
a large group setting to great effect. They take it with them when they
travel to assist in buying or development decisions.

We deliver these ebooks on CD-ROM and have intentionally kept the file sizes
large (image size at 300dpi and file size typically 150MB-200MBs) so as to
facilitate zooming in on elements of a given photo *and* to make it more
difficult to simply attach the PDF and email blast it out to friends and

To see a sample of what the inside of our latest PDF ebook publication looks
like and to gain a sense of what I’m describing, go to:

[NOTE: Also see additional links to several PDF samples below.]

The punchline? It’s all about how the PDF is designed. While I’ll admit that
90% of PDF’s are print-centric documents that are NOT optimized for
on-screen viewing, let’s work on Adobe to create and publish design
guidelines for on-screen presentation via PDF (they kinda, sorta have done
this…but it’s not front-and-center).

I’d be interested in your feedback and thoughts.

Sincerely — Steve Borsch

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About the Author: Kurt Foss

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