Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Why I Hate PDFs

Not all PDFs; that would be over the top. I just hate user manuals that are distributed as PDFs.
  1. They are mainly used online so why the artificial page constraints? I'm in the middle of a topic and all of a sudden there is a page break--not because of a topical shift but because had it been printed on 8.5 x 11 we would have run out of paper. News flash: I didn't print it and I was not running out of paper.
  2. Don't hand me that "search online and then print what you want to read malarkey." If that was the plan, there would be only one set of page numbers, not a "paper" page number and an "electronic" page number that make me guess which one the printer dialog box is asking for. I know you can match them up, but most writers don't; it violates "good book design" to start counting at the beginning. That's why we all know that if the page number is a Roman numeral, there is no useful content on that page.
  3. They are laid out as if they were going to be printed--and printed in duplex at that! If the company is too cheap to print, then at least make it easy for Joe Schmoe to print and stop with the recto/verso page layouts.
  4. They carry so much book overhead: book front cover pages, book back cover pages, inside cover pages, chapter cover pages. It takes me three clicks to get to a topic that actually says something.
  5. There are too many of them and they are named after obscure roles--none of which describe me. I've never met a system administrator, never saw the job title anywhere I worked, yet there are a bazzilion guides out there written for that person. I always suspect that what I need is scattered across three different guides. Give me a single source where I can ask my question once and get all my possible results.
  6. They just scream, "Books are what I know how to write; books are what you get."

User books died; if they had value in that form, companies would still print them and users would buy them. Yet PDFs still hang around like pathetic home town sports fans after the team has moved to the West Coast. Quintus in The Gladiator says "A people ought to know when they've been defeated." PDFs should get the wake-up call.

[Yes, I quoted The Gladiator. It's one of my favorite movies; you might want to take that into consideration when deciding how much credibility to give my opinions.]


Aaron said...

Great post. If more companies asked their customers how they wanted to receive technical documentation, the PDF guide would disappear. I think the major reason that PDF is still out there is that it's a familiar format to most and it's cheap to produce. Not all companies have the budget to invest in the infrastructure and resources required to produce more sophisticated online deliverables.

Adam said...

I agree to a certain extent. However, I still believe there to be value in PDF documents, especially for companies that still employ legacy programmers (a great number of them). These folks have been dog-earing pages, writing in margins, and affixing post-it notes to books for longer than I've been alive.

Should we cater to the users every whim? Yes and no. If your audience is used to books, then provide them with that option (PDF format). Removing a format that the user is familiar with most often leads to unrest. That is not to say, however, that you should stick to the old ways and only provide PDF documents. Why not provide a link to a topic from your online information center that lists PDF documents? With this option, you are providing the user with a choice. If they like the PDF format, it is available, and if not, they don't need to use it.

As a user, I completely agree that PDF documents can be difficult to use, but removing them because you, as the writer, don't like them is not justifiable when you are supposed to be considering the needs of your user. In time, user guides in PDF format will disappear, but I wouldn't count them out completely.

Mike Hughes said...

I didn't say I dislike them as a writer; I dislike tham as a reader. And if a company feels that readers need and want a book, then give them a book. A PDF is not a book; it is an electronic document that you write as if you were writing a book.

Lisa said...

Do you know those online/Flash magazines, where you can flip through page by page as in a regular print magazine? These beat PDFs by a factor of 1000, because they load too long and hey, if I want the experience of turning pages, I will read a real magazine.

jeff said...

OK Mike, your complaints are valid, but what format would you use instead? Some of my users need off-line manuals. CHM has all the necessary features, but also some well-known security issues.

Mike Hughes said...

Good question, but by off-line do you mean away from a computer or off the Internet? If away from a computer then you need to give them a book. If off the Internet, we are going for Eclipse-based Help in the form of Information Centers that contain all of the manuals in HTML accessible format. Have you considered other web-based Help solutions that use a browser client but that run locally? In the end, if PDF is the only solution, then it is what it is.

Matt said...

My employer does just what you say you hate, but we do so because our industry is pretty staid and rather book-centric (our typical users are older and less inclined to use non-book online materials). We publish much the same content as online help linked to the products, so customers can use either. And our books and help are both very topic-oriented, ala DITA but without the rigor. But the PDFs are essentially print-on-demand versions of plain old books. They must have the copyright and trademark stuff and disclaimers, and they are subject to approval by UL (they say No, we cannot sell or ship product). They are positively primitive - the branch we work with are just getting around to recognizing PDF as an alternative to paper.
But your criticisms are valid in many ways. I have been an advocate for years of numbering the book pages the same as the PDF, but I have not won that battle yet here. (But because I am now the guy who maintains all the templates, guess what is gonna happen next...). I intend in the next iteration to get rid of a lot of vestigial book-stuff, like quotes surrounding cross-references that are already distinguished as a-links.
We ship many PDFs, but they are named by the software topic, not who we imagine the user to be.
User books are hardly dead; ask that O'Reilly fellow. What is dead is companies including stacks of paper in the box - our doc if shipped printed would probably make hundreds of chiropractors richer. Companies cannot afford to print and ship (twice - once to warehouse and once to customer) all that ex-timber.

PS - reference to a movie should not detract from credibility, unless you get the title wrong.

Scott Allshouse said...

PDF is bursting at the seams with all sorts of new capabilities. Take 3D PDF with twirling animations. Print that! It is certain that PDF is becoming much heavier for the distribution of technical data. As it gets heavier, it uses more bandwidth, storage and processor power (watch how long it takes to upload a large PDF before the first page displays).

There are lots of arguments for PDF. It is cheap to create and distribute. If the tech pubs department in the company remains to be seen as a necessary evil only to meet some compliance requirements then PDF is cheap.

What many companies don't see is where some changes in how tech pubs creates and distributes valuable content could help many areas of the company. This does not happen with a cheap PDF. A company (large and small) must consider investing in technical publications now if they plan to be on the upside of our current economic down-turn.

Why would they want to exit "cheap" PDF for something that is more interactive and would require investment? Obviously these companies create valuable products and they have invested heavily design and manufacturing. High caliber technical documentation and illustration lends itself to improved comprehension internally and externally. QA is improved, Customer Service calls are decreased, Aftermarket Parts sales are increased, warranty claims are decreased and much more. Think of the sales person in front of a buyer, the question comes, “why should I buy your product when I have other bids that are almost identical?” The answer, "from time to time you will have maintenance requirements, our high quality technical documentation will permit you to get the equipment back in service faster." So the tech pubs department is not a necessary evil. Improving the technical publications process can be a huge contributor to the growth of a company. Once the product leaves the door it is the technical documentation that will represent the product and company for a long time. It is best not to do this with a "cheap" PDF or you will cheapen the value of your products.

This takes us to old timers being reluctant to use "electronic" information. I started with hard copy years ago as a technician working on high tech radars. It was frustrating how much of information was inaccurate. Even more frustrating was submitting feedback only to learn there was no budget to update the manuals. In some cases there is resistance to documentation delivery change but we have been digital for quite some time. Hard media and hard copy are making an exit. I think if you asked someone if it was important to have accurate and up-to-date information that is easily understood they would certainly say yes! You can be sure there will be some that grumble at the thought of change. However, if an interactive documentation deliverable is done in the right way you can be sure more people will be happy with it than not.

Page turning PDF's served a purpose. But PDF is restricting today when you consider the capabilities of web-based, interactive service manuals, parts catalogs, diagnostic tools, assembly instructions and more. As a content creator I can manage my information so it is easily re-used. I can supply navigation but leave open the ability for the end user to add their own navigation and capture this as feedback. The technician and mechanic consume this information in many ways. Some are old timers and know exactly where to go in the same way they dog-eared a book, they follow the bookmark or just remember. The same interactive content is used by the rookie who uses different means of navigation that leads him to information for his task. PDF would only assume you have to look at the information in the way it is formatted and only with the navigation provided. Seems you would spend more time each time you open a PDF learning how to read that PDF before you actually start absorbing the information. Ask a city transit maintenance manager how much time the mechanics in the garage spends tying to find information before they can diagnose a problem or turn a wrench. These managers are not happy. Are you waiting on the bus that does not come?

Give me access to fast, up-to-date information. Give me hotspots in my graphics and links in my text. Allow me to navigate based on my experience. Content and navigation is king, not format! I just want to put it together or get it fixed. If a company puts value into their technical documentation as they do their products it can only improve their standing in the market. And, if I am in the market for their products, you can be sure I inspect how they deliver their documentation.

Dweller of the Crag said...

PDFs can be difficult to use, but they're not going away any time soon.

If I say, let's look at topic "XYZ," the first thing someone says is, "What page is it on?" That is book terminology.

We use PDFs because we and our clients are comfortable with book terminology, book formatting, and with the printed page. We're comfortable with printed TOCs.

Sometimes I don't like them much myself, but PDFs are here to stay.