Statistics, Facts, Reports on PDF vs. HTML

1 Feb 2008 - 8:35am
8 years ago
6 replies
1988 reads
Adam Connor

I am working to make the case to some of my company's IT professionals
that the decision to go with PDF delivery for certain reports rather
than HTML is a bad one.

I've read all of Nielson's articles on PDFs as well as rebuttals by
various individuals (where they only seem to point out that PDFs can do
more than just be for print; include hyperlinks, interactive forms, etc.
but not that they do these things well enough to remove usability

Can anyone else point me to statistics or reports on PDF vs. HTML and
PDF for onscreen reading. I myself believe very strongly that PDFs have
a certain place on the web and that mimicking web functionality is not
it, but the more ammo I go in with the better.

Adam Connor
User Experience Specialist, CUA
User Experience Services (UXS)
aconnor at

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1 Feb 2008 - 11:54am
Jeff Seager

Great question!

The decision _may not_ be a bad one, actually, depending on the
specifics. A lot of it depends on how you've set up the PDF, which
may be somewhat inaccessible by default. Adobe has made some
significant effort to help with these concerns, but it's something
many people don't bother about.

For a start, see these resources:

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2 Feb 2008 - 10:54am

Adam:"I myself believe very strongly that PDFs have a certain place
on the web and that mimicking web functionality is not it, but the
more ammo I go in with the better."

I accept that pov but until you've exported a
sketch/wireframe/interactive wireframe to pdf and sent it to a client
or used it for testing, dont exclude the format completely. Its a
very quick and painless workflow for rapid prototyping & review.

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Posted from the new

3 Feb 2008 - 6:37am
Bruce Esrig

Keep in mind that you might be able to get both.

If the source is written in DITA XML, you can output topics in
whatever combination you find necessary, and in multiple formats,
including HTML and PDF.

The barrier to general use is significant, since you have to put in
place special software (such as FrameMaker or a web-based tool) to
permit wysiwyg editing. The earliest adopters have been publishing
groups who are able to commit to coding in a new XML dialect, with
the expertise that requires.

That said, enterprises with substantial publishing needs are looking
at DITA quite seriously, and adoption appears to be taking off. It's
a language for authoring, organizing, and publishing lots of chunks of
information, especially information that has to be somewhat customized
depending on the audience. Its origins are in HTML markup and HTML
output. It now supports book-like outputs, and further enhancements
are in development.

There is a list of organizations that are working with DITA at

I don't make money on DITA (as of now ...) but I contributed to the
first release of the language through OASIS.

Bruce Esrig

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Posted from the new

4 Feb 2008 - 9:37am
Adam Connor

Thanks for the input everyone.

I completely realize that Adobe has made a lot of effort to include
things like accessibility, and I commend them for it.

The issues I've observed though, is that for a general audience,
expectancy changes when users are presented with a PDF on the web,
they don't expect to interact with it like a web page and therefor
even though you can include things like links in a PDF, they get
confused by them. I think this is what Nielson has been observing as

Good point, and I'll keep that in mind. However for the work I'm
doing now, the documents in question are for the general public and
are not really part of any specific workflow. They're really just

Thanks, I myself am a fan of DITA. Here however I'm not as concerned
with a technical solution for publishing the content as I am with the
experience of consuming it.

What I'm looking for is real world results and analysis of the
experience users have when accessing content on the web through a PDF
vs. rendered HTML.

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4 Feb 2008 - 11:17am
Jeff Seager

I think your observations are good ones, Adam, but you may not find
the data you're seeking. I've looked for it, too. I know your

In the absence of information about your specific use case, some food
for thought:

* For the inexperienced user, well-formed HTML/XHTML is designed to
do a lot of little things transparently. If you aren't a frequent
user of Acrobat, on the other hand, you could easily overlook
controls that exist to make it easier. (Look at the first link I
pointed to before, in which they talk about "reflow" controls in
PDF -- not enabled by default, and most users won't know about it.
That's just one example. You can think of a dozen more in a
30-minute brainstorm.) The point here is that you're
asking/requiring the user to get familiar with one more piece of
software that he/she may not care to learn well enough to extract the
needed data. IT people tend to accept a level of complexity that the
average human will not, and I find they often need to be reminded of

* Along the same lines, HTML/XHTML is inherently designed to be
repurposed. Acrobat is designed first and foremost as a printing
intermediary. Acrobat is a wonderful program, but that bias shines
through; I know Nielsen emphasizes that, but it bears repeating.

* Sometimes showing is better than telling. Know what your PDF looks
like on a PDA or a cellphone? If you're posting a resource for
business travelers or podcast listeners, that might be relevant
because a mobile device may be their only choice. Those IT people
you're talking with are users too, so _show_ them what doesn't make
sense about their idea by going along with it for initial testing.
Experience is even harder to refute than a big pile of studies.

I hope this helps,

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4 Feb 2008 - 12:45pm
Adam Connor

Thanks Jeff. I agree with your points and have made a lot of them to
my colleagues myself. Having someone else say them though does bring
me some peace.

I find it interesting though that more research hasn't been done on
this. The question does seem to come up often in various forms.
There are already a few threads on IxDA that discuss this in one way
or another.

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