Not All HTML Dogs Can Learn New PDF Tricks
Usability guru labels PDF 'unfit for human consumption'

14 July 2003

SEE ALSO: Duff Johnson offers "PDF Online 101" crash course

By Kurt Foss, Planet PDF Editor

When otherwise respected usability columnist and speaker Jakob Nielsen warned people two years ago in his monthly "Alertbox" column to 'avoid PDF for on-screen reading,' the reactions from enthusiasts of the format were predictable. As "PDF Best Practices" columnist Shlomo Perets of Microtype wrote in a response published on Planet PDF in June 2001, Nielsen "undermined his credibility." Adobe application engineer Robert McDaniels offered a second opinion -- a rebuttal actually -- in which he responded point-by-point to some of Nielsen's criticisms. In our own account of Nielsen's 2001 column, we noted that "most of the alleged weaknesses cited in the column actually have more to do with user error -- poor authoring techniques and lack of understanding of PDF -- than with problems inherent in the format." We also pointed out in several instances that Nielsen demonstrated a "glaring unfamiliarity with the PDF file format, using the acronym interchangeably with the name of the Adobe application used to create and work with PDF documents."

In his July 14, 2003 Alertbox -- seemingly written to the tune of the Britney Spears' song "Oops!... I Did It Again' -- Nielsen is back with a new column and old opinion titled "PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption." It's sad enough he foisted his already out-dated and marginally informed opinion in 200. In the new column, however, he seems woefully and even further out of touch with the capabilities of the format and in his understanding of which shortcomings are user-driven and which are inherent to the format.

This time around Nielsen regales us with silly, but meaningless phrases like "PDF is the monster from the Black Lagoon. It puts its clammy hands all over people with a cruel grip that doesn't let go."

HUH? I've been reading PDFs from probably many hundreds of different sources and authors for more than a decade, and I don't recall a single slimy episode. I have encountered bloated and poorly prepared PDFs, but I know where much of the blame resides -- with the creator. And speaking of slime, as we've pointed out before, the heavy-handed criticism seems especially strange from someone who markets his company's own high-priced consulting and research reports in PDF.

Nielsen offers a generalization that "Users Hate PDF," citing apparent feedback from some of his group's recent usability studies. As was the case two years ago, much of the criticism actually relates to how a particular document was authored and not to flaws in the format. Blaming the file format for use of an improper font size or lack of an index is ludicrous. Suggesting that PDF is not editable and that text can't be re-flowed to fit display width is outdated and uninformed.

In a Planet PDF Weblog entry a few months back titled "PDF Usability Premise Put to the Test, we clearly demonstrated the folly of Nielsen's pro-HTML, anti-PDF line of reasoning. Usability flaws exist in the use of HTML, and in many cases a PDF would be much more preferable. We propose he use our cited SEC example documents in one of his next user group experiments and see which format the users prefer browsing to find information.

In a sense, Adobe has invited this kind of criticism in that it has made a minimal effort over the life of the software and format to promote the creation and use of PDFs -- other than forms -- designed primarily for truly online applications. But examples and good information exist, as evidenced by books such as "Adobe Acrobat 5 Master Class: Interactivity and Multimedia for PDF."

Nonetheless, Nielsen's barely updated reasoning still fails to distinguish between format capabilities and author flaws in designing a document for on-screen use. You might say it's unfit for consumption.

Next month he promises to "discuss presentation strategies that minimize user suffering."

Education and training, anyone?

Do you have an opinion on Nielsen's latest Alertbox column? Please express it in the PDF-Talkback section of the Planet PDF Forum!


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