If you’ve ever been to a technical communications conference, you probably noticed there’s one victim that easily falls prey to hate speech. It’s the humble PDF.

You can hear opinions along these lines:

“I can’t believe we still publish to PDF. Do I look like a Gutenberg’s nephew?”

Or: “We gave away our PDFs to an animal shelter and moved on to web output, dude”

Or: “If it was up to me, I’d pack all this content into an AI-powered chatbot talking to your Oculus Rift, but they still want get those ancient PDFs, can you believe it?”.

You could almost get an impression that every tech comm practitioner wants PDF dead, but it just won’t die. Why?

Because the people don’t want it to.

Why do we use PDF anyway?

Back in 1993, Adobe introduced the Portable Document Format (PDF) to address a very real problem: frustrating communication. We were increasingly using computers to create documents, but sharing them with anybody else was a nightmare. There were different file formats, different word processors, different hardware, different operating systems. There were usual formatting problems. There were missing fonts.

If digitalisation was to advance, we needed to find a reliable way of sharing digital documents with anyone, no matter what hardware or software they used. Adobe did just that.

Using the PDF, you could be sure that:

  • The layout and graphics stayed the same no matter what (thanks to PostScript)
  • Fonts traveled along with the document (thanks to font-embedding)
  • All necessary elements were packed into a single file (so you didn’t need any additional files to view the document)

Forward to today, these three basic elements still make the PDF the go-to document viewing format, both for print and the web. Some appreciate what it does, others take it for granted, but we all use it.

So why would those evil technical writers want to kill it?

Moving on

Because technical writers want to make people’s lives easier. That’s what they do. And there are easier ways of consuming information than the good old PDF.

If you leave print aside, the PDF is basically “digital paper”, a format imitating the look and feel of traditional paper documents. The thing is, we’ve almost stopped using traditional paper documents. We consume content on the web. So why stick to the imitation? Why not switch to pure web output?

Indeed, the PDF was created for offline use, which gives us lots of reasons to kill it:

  • PDF documents don’t change size to fit the browser
  • The size and aspect ratio of PDF document pages is a poor match for most screens
  • Reading PDFs on mobile devices is a nightmare
  • Large PDF files take too much space
  • Compared to web output, it’s much more difficult to track and analyse the use of PDFs
  • The PDF is less accessible than well-prepared web output
  • Reusing PDFs is difficult

The list could go on. Perhaps that’s why the official blog of the UK Government Digital Service recommends that the GOV.UK content should be published in HTML and not PDF. Perhaps that’s why the number of the PDF’s enemies is growing. Perhaps that’s why technical writers want to assassinate it.

The Will of the People

We know the drawbacks PDFs come with. And guess what – we’re still seeing them all over the place. We keep creating, reading, downloading and printing PDFs, even though the world is so much different than in 1993. Why?

Because some people need or want information when they are not in front of a screen. For example, we have a project for a customer that makes wood chippers. We are helping them work out what their documentation strategy should be. Their customers are tree surgeons. One of their use-cases is being out in the field (literally) and needing to troubleshoot an issue. Relying on a good mobile data signal is unrealistic, so they need elements of the operators manual to be printed out and physically with the chipper – and PDF is the best format for publishing that document. It’s also useful to have the PDF findable on their website as well as equivalent HTML content, because it’s reassuring to customers to know that the ‘same’ document that is with the chipper is also easily downloadable.

Because the PDF is much easier to create than web output. All you need is a word processor capable of saving your work to PDF and voila – you’ve got a file that is going to look exactly the same on the other side. You control the design, independent of browsers, systems or screens. To view it, you just download or open a file, a single paper-resembling unit of information that feels so much more like the familiar traditional paper. And for most people… this is good enough.

And the word “good enough” is the real answer to the PDF’s longevity. Most people are fine with what they already use. They feel in control. They don’t need to adapt. They’re tired of constant change, safe in their comfort zones. Some of them would rather keep dozens of PDFs scattered all over on their desktop than look up a carefully prepared web output, because it’s “good enough” for them.

For now, the PDF remains the will of the people. And technical writers need to live with it.

You Can’t Force Innovation Down the User’s Throat

People have always been talking about things dying out. The novel was supposed to die a long time ago. Asked in the 90s about our vision of 2018, most of us would have thought of androids roaming the streets and artificial intelligence taking over Vatican. The truth, however, is that progress has never been a simple, black-and-white process, like: “Here’s the email. Let’s never send a single fax again” or “Here’s Kindle. Let’s stop selling paperbacks.” The adoption of new ways of doing things on a large scale usually takes ages (sometimes literally).

So let us automate, innovate, animate, shoot live-action tutorials, use augmented reality, artificial intelligence, chatbots, and what not – sure! At 3di, we love innovation. But the PDF is not going anywhere, at least not for now.

If you’d like to get together and debate with other technical authors about the relative merits of PDF then we can recommend the Technical Communication UK conference. 3di also hosts Madcap Flare user groups in our UK and Poland offices where solving problems with multiple output formats is always a popular topic. Join the MadCap Flare community on Facebook.