Re: PDFs: how do people really use them?

Subject: Re: PDFs: how do people really use them?
From: S Charker <scharker -at- SYNFLUX -dot- COM -dot- AU>
Date: Thu, 6 May 1999 09:06:58 +1000

Thanks to the 4 people who responded to my question about how PDFs get used
in the field.

Since my post was prompted by my own intense irritation with Acrobat Reader,
I'm gratified that from such a small group:

-- One found that "About half of our staff and customers pick up Acrobat
quickly and have no problems. Other folks are routinely puzzled by several
common features or quirks." I interpret this as meaning that about half
(shall we 57% and pretend it's precise) of these users routinely have to
think about how to read these PDFs online. That's a mighty high proportion

-- One is testing new PDFed documentation internally, with a focus on the
instructions for installation and for navigation and search. It would be
interesting if a high proportion of these test subjects also are puzzled by
Acrobat Reader, though the instructions might solve the puzzles before they
occur. Michele, maybe you could post your results when you have them?

-- One asked "What's continuous view?" FYI it's under the View menu, and
turning it on makes the Page up Page Down buttons work on screen pages
instead of paper pages (as they do in a browser), so that if the paper page
is longer than the current screen display page down doesn't blithely ignore
half the content. (Adobe says it displays them in a continuous vertical
column, which is true but perhaps not obviously a benefit.) This question
made my day (thank you), because I didn't know about it either until someone
told me.

-- One suggested that Adobe tested the online usability of the Acrobat help,
since the page size is small and the print size is large.

The unsurprising conclusion I draw from these and other comments is that
it's hard to produce a PDF that works well both online and in print.

When I asked about the number of pages people are willing to print, I was
expecting an upper limit of around 20 sheets of paper and I was expecting a
lot of throwaway printouts. I asked whether whole documents get printed
because this expectation seems to be the rationale (maybe the excuse?) for
providing PDFed manuals and I'm wondering if it really happens.

Only one response could refer to actual knowledge of user behaviour, and
those users do print entire documents. Elise, it would be interesting to
know if those printouts reach a wider audience than printed manuals often
do. Do you know?

The writer who is preparing new PDFed documentation is supplying two sets of
PDFs, one optimised for printing entire manuals and one "optimised for
online reference and printing small sections". That's already taken serious
thought, and I should think is going to take serious production effort. It's
a long way from producing printed manuals that just happen to be supplied

No one was supplying HTML for online reading with a printer-friendly version
for printing. I haven't seen this for documentation, but it's reasonably
common in Web news services and recommended by... I was going to say Jakob
Nielsen, but I'm out of time to check the reference and I might be thinking
of some other guru. For those who asked, the idea is to provide short pages
for online, so that people don't have to scroll much, but a single, long
page for printing. You'll also sometimes see PDFs supplied as the
printer-friendly version. On my current project we're providing
context-sensitive HTMLHelp with PDFs of almost the same material for

Four responses to off-the-cuff questions do not a research study make. I
guess the only real conclusion to be drawn is that the existence of PDF
doesn't eliminate the need for user analysis, serious design effort, and
user feedback. That won't surprise anybody on this list, but it might be a
tiny bit of help in improving the marketing information that so frustrated
Bill Hall.

Thanks to: Elise Kaplan, Beverly Robinson, Bill Hall, Michele Marques

Sandra Charker

"Nobody wants to remain a beginner" Alan Cooper

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