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Smiths’ Interactive has recently published a report on the use of the web for publishing annual reports (http://www.smithsinteractive.com/downloads/top20.pdf). Many of the issues they identify as problems with the use of PDF (Portable Document Format) files reflect those that we see regularly during intranet evaluations:
Content intended for online reading presented in a PDF without an HTML equivalent
Large PDFs with no tables of content or other internal navigation
No easy access to chart or table data (important for accessibility as well as meeting general user needs)
PDFs formatted for professional (rather than electronic) printing
The first of these points is very straightforward: material intended for online reading should be provided in HTML with the PDF simply as a convenience for printing. (Advanced users of Cascading Style Sheets would even argue that the PDF is redundant since CSS will allow various unnecessary page elements to be hidden in the printed version.)
Large PDFs with no internal navigation are a headache for all users but particularly so for those who cannot see the screen. Scrolling through a 100-page report is bad enough if you have perfect vision but is an absolute nightmare if you have to rely on a screen reader. There needs to be a detailed table of contents at the start of every large PDF with links to the appropriate sections of the document.
Good charts can be a very effective communication tool, but many users would find access to the raw data quite valuable (this is particularly true of annual reports). But bear in mind that for users with visual impairments this is more than a courtesy – it is a necessity. If they cannot see the chart then an equivalent form of the underlying data must be provided to comply with disability discrimination legislation is most countries. It is simply not enough to provide vague descriptive text saying ‘this is a chart’.
The final point does not occur as frequently as the others in my experience. This is just as well since it presents a major problem whenever it occurs. Picture this: you have just spent a small fortune on getting a new brochure or report designed and it is truly a magnificent thing to behold. It has lots of charts and images; it makes copious use of coloured panels bleeding off the edge of the page in several directions; it uses multiple columns and is in a folded format. Naturally you are very proud of this document and you would like to share it with as wide an audience as possible. The difficulties are that:
It is huge (20 MB or more) because it was originated for press quality
It cannot be read online because of its formatting
It cannot be printed electronically without shrinking (since most devices cannot print up to the edge of a page)
It will require an entire month’s supply of ink (because of the coloured panels)
In short, the document in this format is a disaster for online use. Always provide a simplified version for reading (in HTML) and printing (in PDF, if necessary) online.