Researchers Say PDFs Are ‘Unfit for Human Consumption’

We just stumbled across this Vice article titled Researchers Say PDFs Are ‘Unfit for Human Consumption’. It references a new paper published by the Nielson Norman Group outlining the problems with the PDF format that still exist.

“The format is intended and optimized for print. It’s inherently inaccessible, unpleasant to read, and cumbersome to navigate online. Neither time nor changes in user behavior have softened our evidence-based stance on this subject,” the article reads. “Even 20 years later, PDFs are still unfit for human consumption in the digital space.”

Ouch!

While it is an interesting read and does outline some very real limitations of the Portable Document Format as well as strategies to make them more user-friendly, it is, after all, a document format. The primary function of PDF is to make files universally available on all platforms and to preserve the formatting and layout of the original documents.

Court filings, for example, require a consistent and universally accepted standard for submitting electronic documents. Most companies require standardization of company forms across their business practices. Government agencies like the IRS need standard forms and documents for processing. So do hospitals and clinics working with patient medical records. Many electronic texts require a specific layout of images and text in order to be understood correctly and in context. So many examples in just about every industry. And to accomplish this, you really need a standards-based document format.

Having said that, it’s certainly appropriate to make some information available in other formats, especially if the information needs to be dynamically formatted to different sized screens and for different users, but it’s hard to fault PDF because it doesn’t work for all users in all situations.

Also, it should be noted that there really aren’t any viable alternatives to the Adobe PDF for enterprise users where these types of considerations are paramount. Microsoft did try to gain support for its XML Paper Specification (XPS) but it never took hold as a replacement to PDF.

While PDF files do have limitations, especially for users reading the files on small screens like phones or tablets, they still provide the best technology for creating, archiving, and sharing electronic documents. Adobe’s blog gives many reasons why PDFs are better than other proprietary formats.

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