Usability columnist 'undermined his credibility'
PDF 'Best Practices' advocate replies to Jakob Nielsen article

Shlomo Perets launching new 'PDF Best Practices' series

Coming Soon: Shlomo Perets will begin within the week a new series of short articles for Planet PDF on the theme of Acrobat PDF "Best Practices," a topic he frequently writes and speaks about, the latter most recently at the PDF 2001 East conference.

The ongoing series of concise articles will cover his recommendations for producing better PDFs.

The first article will focus specifically on reducing PDF file sizes, especially relevant to interactive and web-based PDFs. See the More Info links near the end of this page to read some of his previous, related articles.

11 June 2001

Editor's Note: With permission of the author, Shlomo Perets of Microtype, we're publishing his response to the June 10, 2001 "Alertbox" column by Jakob Nielsen that recommends against the use of PDF for documents intended for online reading. Perets' comments were posted in the PDF Talkback section of the Planet PDF Forum and on several related discussion groups and lists. Share your thoughts, too!

In my mind, Dr. Nielsen's shallow observations and recommendations have seriously undermined his credibility as a usability expert.

PDF is a versatile file format, with diverse uses. Many use it for print/press purposes, but other use it for visually-rich interactive documents, multimedia, forms, image-based catalogs, and other purposes. Contrary to Nielsen's statements, the hypertext and navigation possibilities in PDF files are limited only by the creativity and skills of the PDF creators.

If that's what one is looking for, it is not that difficult to find PDF files which are badly designed and created (including in Nielsen's site). But it is ludicrous to take these suboptimal PDFs as the premise for a discussion on the capabilities and suitability of the PDF format for any given purpose.

The real question which should be asked is what is the intended use of a specific PDF and based on that, how well does it serve the purpose. And this is a usability question, isn't it?

Watching someone try to drive a screw into place with a hammer could make one assume that the hammer is a useless, clumsy tool. This could also be backed up with "statistics".

As to Nielsen's specific recommendations:

HTML has its own advantages and disadvantages and each format should be used when it is most appropriate for the task at hand. I would not make any sweeping recommendations in either direction, but would advocate careful assessment of each separate case or type of use.

I highly recommend to encourage end users to use the free Acrobat Reader 5, and producers to upgrade to Acrobat 5, and not to stick to obsolete versions and keep complaining in the meantime. Imagine a recommendation not to move to digital telephony technology because most people have pulse-operated handsets.

- Shlomo Perets, Microtype


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