Subject: RE: On PDFs
From: "Robert Plamondon" <robert -at- plamondon -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 25 Apr 2003 08:34:31 -0700

Dick writes:

> That's a rather oversimplified experimental design.

I hardly felt that it was appropriate to give a course in Design of
Experiments in a posting to this list!

> What kind of server is being used? How is it configured? Who
> controls that? What transmission protocol is going to be used
> (HTTP, FTP, SMTP)? What is the content of the document
> (proportions of text and tables:images:diagrams)? How critical
> is layout and design to the communication value of the
> document? What settings were used to generate the PDF? From
> what source application? What advanced features were used?
> How clean is the HTML? What are the browser compatibility issues?


1. The company's Web server would be ideal, though, really,

2. at 56 kbps the server configuration is unlikely to be an issue (if it is,
the server has big problems).

3. The transmission protocol is whatever you'd expect the typical user to
use, which is generally dictated by how things are offered on the company's
server. This is easily discoverable. Do thee likewise.

4. The content of the document depends on the document chosen, obviously.
You choose a document for immediate relevance -- typically either the one
that customers are downloading the most, or the one you're working on at the
moment and have some chance of getting released in an alternate format.

5. I'm not sure what you mean by "the communication value of the document,"
but if we use an existing relevant document, which we should, it's already
locked down, so we don't have to ask ourselves any hard questions.

6, 7, 8. If I recall the original posting correctly, the PDF version already
exists. We would start from there.

9. Frankly, I don't care how clean the HTML is. There is a procedure in
place for generating HTML. There is a procedure in place for generating PDF.
There is a question about the relative usability of these two formats for
on-line users with slow connections. There is a method, however
idiosyncratic, of choosing a representative document to compare in
side-by-side usability trials of HTML vs. PDF. The results will be either
(a) HTML is obviously better, (b) PDF is obviously better, or (c) the
results are arguable. If the format that's obviously better is the one that
is NOT being used, additional research is more or less mandatory.
Complacency is an option in the other two cases.

10. What ABOUT browser compatibility issues?

> And while we're at it, why not test the same document
> rendered as a Flash file? ;-)

> That only scratches the surface.
> I'm afraid there are no one-size-fits-all answers to this conundrum.

Why should there be? Some companies won't allow anyone to test anything
unless they promise in advance that they already know what the result will
be; that is, genuine experimentation is verboten. In other companies, many
questions are answered with, "Try it out in a limited way and get back to me
if it looks promising."

Any experiment can be burdened to the point of impossibility with an
insistence that every permutation be examined. It's usually best to run
something up the flagpole and see who salutes, since the odds are pretty
good that the actual problem isn't what you thought it was, and the initial
experiment will redirect you down more fruitful paths of inquiry.

To me, the experiment I outlined seems quite trivial from a
design-of-experiments point of view, with the only tricky part being the
method of determining "usability" from the reader's point of view.

Another way of doing the experiment is to offer both the HTML du jour and
the PDF du jour on the Web site. After both versions have been available for
a while, poll users about which one they prefer, and why.

-- Robert
Robert Plamondon
President, High-Tech Technical Writing
robert -at- plamondon -dot- com
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Re: On PDFs: From: Dick Margulis

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