Avoid PDF for On-Screen Reading

Nielsen says no to PDF in useit.com. Says Nielsen, Forcing users to browse PDF files decreases usability by around 300% compared with HTML pages. You should only use PDF for documents that users are likely to print. In those cases, following six basic guidelines will help you minimize usability problems. Some of Nielsen's guidelines are convincing enough, once you get to them. Nielsen takes a narrow view of the Web, however -- his Web worldview so often suggest that the guidelines for Usability in the commercial space are applicable to all Web experiences. Or perhaps that is just my misunderstanding because I've never heard a contrary assertion made on useit. Here's a different view. My position is that PDF, when done right (e.g. using the "Bookmarks" pane to create hierarchical navigation and embedding hyperlinks in the content), and used in the appropriate context is a valuable document format whether it's used for viewing on screen or printing. Information services organzations often have the job of providing access to documents from data aggregators, report vendors, and internal organizations. Market reports and journal articles for example can often be sent by vendors in PDF format because it is important for the appearance of the document to remain intact -- not to mention that some legal requirements prevent extracting data from and tampering with the appearance of these documents. A large percentage of data that Information services organizations have to make available may be in binary formats like PDF, Word, Excel, etc. and the challenge is to view each document as an entity and make the information contained in the document available by describing/classifying them. So the key is not to just say no to PDF, but to understand how to make access to the information in the documents possible!