Often, the quickest way to get a document deployed is to write it in a Word doc, create a PDF, and post it somewhere for users to access. This happens a lot for both end user and developer documentation. So why, then, is distributing PDF files for online reading a top web usability gaffe?
The problem is users hate PDFs:
- PDFs aren’t formatted for web content
- They break the context of use for web applications by kicking users into another application
- They have poor search and index capabilities, and terrible navigation.
And if your documentation is hard to use, it won’t get used.
A lot of clients we work with say the PDF is a temporary fix and that they plan to get the documentation into an HTML format soon. We’ve told them that it’s really an easy conversion process to go from Word to a help authoring tool, so we can help them out with that for minimum cost in the future. Yet nobody who has told us that they plan on switching from PDF to HTML in the future has ever gone on to do so.
It’s time to stop being hostile to our users and to the developers integrating with our applications. For my part, I plan to stop being the enabler and making sure our clients know that the prospective tradeoffs are not just a matter of time and cost. Documentation that is ignored for usability issues is no better than no documentation at all.