Subject: RE: PDF vs. HTML
From: Arlen -dot- P -dot- Walker -at- jci -dot- com
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 18 Jun 2001 10:09:32 -0500

>PS: For tech writers that have spent many years producing matter mostly
>print, it wouldn't hurt at all to read Jakob Nielsen's ideas, which are
>mostly about reading stuff on computer screens rather than paper. Some of
>his ideas can transfer to print for sure. The list of all his
>is at A couple especially good ones are

The word "hypocrite" often comes to my mind in connection with Massa
Nielsen. I've only rarely seen less usable websites than his own on the
web. Don't get me wrong, he often has things to say which are quite worth
the reading and pondering, but isn't right as often as he could be, if he'd
just be a little less superficial in his analysis and less sweeping in his
statements. (Though perhaps there's a good reason for the latter. Sweeping
generalizations draw attention; even when they're wrong, they serve to
bring up a topic for examination.)

The PDF v HTML screed he wrote comes to mind as one. Virtually *everything*
he had to say about PDF wasn't true of PDF, but rather was true of the way
some people had chosen to use PDF. (It was apparent where his bad analysis
was coming from when he was proud of being several years out of date with
Acrobat, and insisted everyone else should be, as well. Guess that means we
should all go back to using v3 browsers as well. Oh, that's right, I
forgot; we shouldn't expect consistency.) He'd have been on more solid
ground had he also denounced HTML because people wrote unusable web pages.
But he doesn't. For some reason he sees a difference between good and bad
design in HTML, but is unable to make such subtle distinctions when he
looks elsewhere.

PDF can be indexed (see Google for evidence of that); it is completely
independent of paper and can be designed to load in a web page without
causing any of the usability problems he claims. Lazy designers can use it
to put "digital paper" up instead of a website, but that's a design issue,
not a PDF issue; I see people putting up "digital paper" in HTML every day
as well.

I find PDF an interesting format. Is it perfect? No more so than HTML. It
has design constraints that you have to learn and work with. It's not a "no
brain" publishing system, anymore than a WYSIWYG web editor is, though
people treat both as if they were.

>From a web standpoint, its major flaw is that it requires a plug-in -- one
the user probably has, but for some of the finer features it may require an
update. That can be a problem for a designer, but it's not an
insurmountable one.

How does PDF fit into an overall strategy? Depends on your expertise, your
audience, and your staff. Low on all three? Either stay away from it
completely, or write short abstracts of all the PDF docs you want to serve.
Wiiling to take the time to get things right in it? I still wouldn't do an
entire site in PDF (though I suppose it's possible) but I'd defintiely make
it a focus for everything that the user might want to look at while away
from the network for one reason or another, while keeping it as
network-friendly as possible for the simplicity of having a single doc to

Some servers can't be set up to serve fractions of a PDF document, so your
own infrastructure will play a part in your decision as well. If your
server supports it, later versions of the PDF plug-in will download a page
at a time, as needed. This would allow you to put a chain of diagnostics,
for example, in one single PDF document, with links that will take you from
one page to another without making the user download the rest of the

A good use for PDF is a document that requires a large image, such as an
exploded diagram of a part assembly. The PDF doc will scale upon
magnification better than a straight web image will (though similar effects
can be achieved by using a browser like Opera, which can scale images, and
by serving up an incredibly large image, shrunk down by default in the
browser). A possible use could be an exploded assembly with each part in
the diagram a link to full specifications about the part.

Have fun,
Chief Managing Director In Charge, Department of Redundancy Department
DNRC 224

Arlen -dot- P -dot- Walker -at- JCI -dot- Com
In God we trust; all others must provide data.
Opinions expressed are mine and mine alone.
If JCI had an opinion on this, they'd hire someone else to deliver it.


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