PDF In-Depth

Jakob Nielsen's PDF Phobia is seemingly incurable

July 28, 2003

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Two years ago when noted usability guru Jakob Nielsen flaunted his disdain for PDF in an "Alertbox" column, he also showcased his glaring lack of familiarity with the format. Knowledgeable users could take -- and dismiss -- his criticisms for what they were: Uninformed opinions. Unfortunately, his flawed comments were likely accepted at face value by those less experienced with Adobe Acrobat and PDF, who didn't understand (as Nielsen didn't) that many of the alleged shortcomings he cited were really the fault of document authors and not the portable document format itself. We hoped Nielsen might become a bit more enlightened on the subject before he wrote again.

Two weeks ago we discovered in his July 14 column that while times -- and versions of Acrobat and the PDF specification -- had changed, Nielsen's opinions and level of understanding had not. He repeated most of his debatable criticisms in a new column titled "PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption." Many fans of the format found his latest rant a bit hard to digest, as we've shared in several recent features and/or Weblog entries.

It appears time now to abandon hope that Nielsen will ever come to understand the flaws in much of his anti-PDF commentaries. Based on yet another column posted today titled "Gateway Pages Prevent PDF Shock," it's evident that he's not someone open to making new discoveries (or in publishing corrections).

For a brief instant, we found a small point of agreement with Nielsen in his latest missive: As a user, it's unpleasant to be surprised when clicking what appears to be a standard Web link only to discover that Acrobat or Reader (or another helper application) is suddenly being launched in the background to handle the linked file. When a Web-based link points to a PDF, there needs to be an obvious indicator -- such as the graphical Adobe PDF icon, or at least some brief text marker, such as [PDF] (as we typically do at Planet PDF). Better yet, also include the document's file size so the user has some notion of what to expect in terms of download or display.

Nielsen's fear of PDF is apparently so great, he proposes in the latest column that when linking to PDF documents, Web publishers ought to create separate gateway pages that describe a PDF and include the actual download link. Or in his biased phrasing, the gateway page should "clearly warn users that they'll be getting a PDF file." Warn?! How about 'inform?' But that's still not his preference, as he makes clear:

"Ideally, companies would reformat each type of information [I.E. annual reports, press information, employee handbooks and product data sheets] for online use."

How thankful PDF enthusiasts are that many companies and organizations see the folly (and expense) of converting everything to browser-dependent HTML! And as we described in a previous Weblog entry, converting a corporate document to text or HTML for posting on the Web is no guarantee of usability.

Nielsen takes his PDF-bashing nonsense even further, suggesting that *if* you publish content in PDF, you should make sure the files are *not* indexed by Internet search sites. He proposes the use of a robots.txt file to steer search spiders away from PDF files! Isn't this taking his phobia a bit far? If he chooses not to personally read PDF files because he finds them so challenging, then so be it. But for the many Reader-equipped Netizens who don't break into a cold sweat at the sight of a PDF turning up in a Google search, let them be indexed! Is he really in favor of deepening the Internet's "Black Hole" -- information that can't be found using traditional search tools, even though it exists and may be very relevant to what someone is searching for? Is there any logic in such a suggestion?

Here's a better one: If you have an anal attitude about seeing PDFs in your Net searching results, Google's 'Advanced Search' provides a handy option -- let's call it the "Nielsen Setting."

Google No PDFs

Under the "File Format" search option:

  1. Select "Don't" in the first search field
  2. Select "Adobe Acrobat PDF (.pdf)" in the second field

Of course, if you want to search for *only* PDFs on a given topic, simply change the first "File Format" option.

But Nielsen isn't done just yet: He saves a few final paragraphs of his recent diatribe against PDF to label its use for forms "a bad idea."

Nielsen still clings fiercely to an idea he posed at least as far back as 1996 (Alertbox: "In Defense of Print") -- that PDF "should never be read online."

Since he's chronicling "bad ideas," it's really time to include that one.

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