Seybold PDF survey *in* PDF also worthy of study
Modelled after dynamic HTML version ... with a few PDF perks

26 June 2002

By Kurt Foss, Planet PDF Editor

Surveying the industry is part of Seybold's approach to tracking the technologies and issues of most importance -- and/or of growing significance -- to its audience. In recent years, the use of Web-based, HTML-source Q-and-A's has provided a wealth of valuable data, useful to Seybold both in planning its major industry seminars and in publishing its varied, authoritative reports.

PDF Survey

But when it came time this summer to conduct its first formal survey on PDF usage, inevitably someone was bound to ask: 'Is there a PDF version?' After all, the circumstances are nearly ideal -- the survey is aimed at serious users (full version of Acrobat, not the free Reader), a group most likely to be using the latest version of the product and to be receptive to completing a PDF version. And, with Adobe's growing focus on PDF Forms, what better time and way to showcase the possibilities.

In fact, someone -- Lori DeFurio, Adobe Systems' Developer Evangelist for ePaper Technologies -- did ask. And as often happens when you step forward with such a query, the technical task became hers: to help develop a prototype version of the Seybold survey on PDF usage *in Adobe PDF* to test the viability of releasing a version publicly.

After refining and testing the questions on the dynamic, multi-level HTML version of the survey, Seybold provided the source file to Adobe Systems and DeFurio. She had in the meantime lined up some project support, tabbing a member of Adobe's summer squad -- free from college for a few months -- to assist. No, this wasn't a job for some eager student who managed to wrangle a way onto the Adobe payroll briefly. To the contrary, Prof. Donald Story from the Mathematics Department at the University of Akron is a well-known and -respected PDF practitioner and advocate who once spent a sabbatical working at Adobe during the development of Acrobat 5. He's back with Adobe in a supporting role from his home office this summer, and was definitely up for the survey project challenge.

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LaTeX-to-PDF Authoring

As some Planet PDF devotees may recall from past articles about or by Prof. Story, he's been developing his own set of specialized skills with interactive PDFs for seven or eight years, having created a range of PDF tests, quizzes, mathematical flash cards, gameboards, puzzles, etc., all built using the LaTeX typesetting program as his preferred authoring tool, particularly ideal for mathematical publishing. [NOTE: There are numerous examples on his "AcroTeX" Web site.] His relevant expertise includes advanced knowledge of forms, the use of JavaScript for Acrobat, page templates and the program's handy, but under-utilized batch processing features.

Adobe PDF

The goal was to create an Adobe PDF version that as closely as possible mimicked the interactivity and logic of the HTML version of the survey -- created with a high-end commercial survey application -- where a respondent's answer to a question on one page determines which other pages and questions are subsequently presented in the Web browser window. The use of cookies and JavaScript helps with the user tracking and navigation. Story felt an Adobe PDF version could retain all of the desired functionality utilizing Acrobat 5's built-in capabilities. The survey's electronic submission process and output had to also mesh seamlessly with that being used by Seybold's research group.

During the two to three weeks of development and testing, Story re-worked the survey code within his LaTeX toolset, adapting the use of JavaScript to work with Acrobat, converting certain Web-based functionality -- such as being served new survey pages dynamically -- to work similarly within the self-contained PDF version. On output, it produced "the exact same data stream," says DeFurio. The robust Adobe PDF version cleared the final hurdle for the survey's planned mid-June launch.

Most survey respondents are likely to choose one form or the other, and never really take the time to compare. And based on the first week's completed surveys, according to survey administrator and Seybold PDF Conference co-chair Hans Hartman, so far nine out of ten people are submitting via the HTML version. Anyone interested in the capabilities of PDF as a medium for interactive surveys ought to review Story's finished document if for no other reason than its educational value. [BUT we encourage anyone who hasn't completed the survey, but plans to do so before the July 19 deadline, to consider using the PDF version.]

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Building in PDF Logic

Here are a few highlights:

    One aspect of the PDF version of the survey that may seem contrary to suggested practice is that Seybold's link [survey page excerpt shown below] points to a zipped version of the PDF file, and thus the survey doesn't automatically load inside the Web browser. Typically forms that offer electronic submission must be completed within a browser rather than in Acrobat. Instead, this survey is *intended* to be downloaded, decompressed, and then loaded into and completed within Acrobat 5 (required) -- not with the free Acrobat Reader.
    survey link

  • Another seeming anomaly: the zipped PDF is around 160kb in file size; the uncompressed PDF is 1.6 MBs. Typically one doesn't expect to see much additional compression to a zipped version of a PDF file, which has its own efficient compression scheme. However, JavaScript in a PDF does not get compressed, and the survey in PDF uses a LOT of JavaScript -- "everywhere that JavaScript fits in Acrobat," says DeFurio. A "space audit" of the file [excerpt shown below] using Acrobat 5's "PDF Consultant" tool reveals that more than half of the PDF contents are listed as being "unknown," presumably the plentiful JavaScript for the most part. "Everything is done on the client side with JavaScript, including preparing the data for submission," says Story. "Data on hidden template pages [see next highlight below] are ignored. On server side, the script to receive and save the form data is really quite short. The data is submitted as HTML form data rather than FDF; the Adobe Acrobat FDF Toolkit was not used."

  • When the PDF is decompressed and opened, it appears to be a one-page document. In reality, it's a 56-page file, initially with one page visible and 55 hidden template pages; a subset of the other pages appear dynamically depending on responses made to certain key questions, beginning with Question 1. Not all pages are used in the typical user's completion of the survey; more likely the final page count will be around 20-25 simple-answer questions at the point of submission. One feature that's much nicer with the PDF version is the consistent page size, with all questions on any given page viewable without scrolling. On some HTML survey pages, scrolling down several "pageviews" is required to see all questions and to continue.
    Question 1

  • Several JavaScript-driven buttons on each page give the user an intentionally limited set of navigational controls -- the ability to "Continue" from the opening page or "Resume" if returning to a partially completed and saved version; on inside pages, buttons also allow the user to go "Back" or to "Save" the file (including all responses made up to that point). On the final page, the "Continue" button changes to "Submit." IMPORTANT: You should first "Save" the entered data before submitting.
    buttonsbuttons

  • One can get a sense of how far he or she has progressed toward the completion of the survey by viewing an interactive strip [shown below] across the bottom of all survey pages -- the blue line moves forward (and backward) as the user navigates through the questions. Question numbers vary widely as one moves through the survey.
    tracking bar

  • Certain questions require the user to enter exact percentages in the form fields; JavaScript-based verification will pop up a warning if the percentages don't add up to 100 percent, as explained in the question's instructions (in blue text).
    verification

  • A user's movement through the survey is continually mapped via JavaScript; if one was to randomly answer questions on some pages, but leave others for further contemplation before answering, a saved, then re-opened version of the partially completed survey will still guide the user to unanswered questions within the assigned path.
    resume survey

Hartman, co-chair of the upcoming Seybold PDF Conference in San Francisco, says the addition of the PDF version of the survey was an important step by Seybold -- and for the conference -- in making a "practice what we preach" statement.

In just the first week of the survey's public availability -- the last day is July 19 -- the response rate has already been "higher than we expected for the entire month," says Hartman, who believes that testifies to the popularity of the format among the targeted audience. At this early stage, he says, submissions from the HTML version are outpacing PDF-version submissions by about a 9-to-1 ratio. While it's premature to definitively cite the possible reasons for or significance of the not-unexpected difference, Hartman speculates that people downloading the PDF may have done so intentionally -- with the intent of completing it later offline, which in fact was one of the reasons for offering the LaTeX-authored version. The PDF-based survey instrument is more amenable to being saved after partial completion, then re-opened, finished and submitted online via Acrobat.

"I am happy with the use of the PDF version and to a large extent see these people as respondents who might normally not have participated otherwise," says Hartman, suggesting that Prof. Story's downloadable survey form was ideal for those with problematic circumstances -- no time to do it online, slow modem connections, and other factors that might discourage some appropriate candidates from taking part.

There is one small difference in the submitted data stream from the two variations of the survey -- each contains a special "identifier" that will tell survey analysts which version a particular respondent used. That information could be used as a key variable for some analyses, Hartman says, providing a way to measure whether there are any statistically significant differences between answers from people using one version versus the other.

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Send Feedback on PDF version!

One of the pleasant surprises so far, he says, especially considering the good early response rate, is that there have been no calls or messages with complaints or requests for technical support. The HTML version includes a link to the vendor's site for tech support, but the PDF version appears to have no such feedback information. Therefore, with the consent of Story and DeFurio, Planet PDF is glad to solicit comments (editor@planetpdf.com) -- problem reports, suggestions, questions or even praise -- about the Adobe PDF version of the survey. We'll report on any significant findings in a future article, and of course share them with the survey team at Seybold.

And last but not least, if you want to be among the first to learn Seybold's analysis on PDF usage, plan to attend the Seybold PDF Conference from September 10-12 in San Francisco! The newly added "PDF Summit" opens the three-day event with results from the survey and from a separate, but related "PDF Workflow Shootout" being conducted by conference co-chair John Parsons of The Seybold Report, in tandem with leading Acrobat/PDF-oriented prepress and printing vendors. Planet PDF is a co-sponsor of the Seybold PDF Conference.


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