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Every once in a while, I come across a business requirement asking me to force a PDF document to be downloaded from a website instead of opened in the user's browser. While I question this every time since it is forcing the user to do more work to read the content, it's a small tweak to the site to implement and thus usually does get implemented.

Looking around online, I cannot find anyone who has done any studies (quantitative or qualitative) with regards to if this practice should be done. Almost all content I found online focuses on the "same tab/different tab" debate.

While I know exceptions always exist, does anyone have any insight for if it's a good practice to force a user to download a PDF file instead of letting it open in their browser (or whatever default the user has)?

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Very often opening in a browser has poorer performance than in a dedicated reader - especially for large documents. Just a factor to keep in mind. –  JohnGB Apr 23 '13 at 21:07
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Forcing a user to do download it, when we are used to open documents directly in the browser, is not a good practice for sure. Forcing a user is not a good practice, guiding a user is a good practice.I'd like to argue with anyone telling me that it's better if I download the document and only after I can view it... –  Toni Toni Chopper Apr 23 '13 at 21:13
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@Toni Toni Chopper Not sure what you're getting at - I don't think the real problem is between "forcing" and "guiding". The real issue is a design choice between giving the user options or eliminating those options. Often the best design choice is the one that eliminates options for the user –  Joshua Barron Apr 23 '13 at 23:35
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A very good question. I don't know of any research myself but intuition says allowing the user to view the document in browser is the best option as it reduces user involvement. Quite often a user will be required to view a pdf in search of information that may or may not be within, it's a pretty poor experience if a user is to download multiple documents when these may be of no use. - obviously I realise there are exceptions to the rule (as stated above). –  Daniel Meade Apr 24 '13 at 0:19
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I think it's fair to assume that some people will always prefer to view it in the browser, and some will always prefer to download, so to accomodate both, ideally you let them make the decision (and just provide the link). –  DA01 Apr 24 '13 at 7:06
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8 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Taken from the NielsonNorman website:

It seems that if you have a PDF you want the user to see, make it downloadable - Don't make them view it in the brower, especially if it's a large size.

Forcing users to browse PDF files makes usability approximately 300% worse compared to HTML pages. Only use PDF for documents that users are likely to print.

This is my rough estimate, based on watching users perform similar tasks on a variety of sites that used either PDF or regular Web pages. Because I have not performed a detailed measurement study of PDF on its own, I can't calculate the precise usability degradation. However, whether the true number is 280% or 320%, one thing is certain: the number is big and reflects significant user suffering in terms of increased task time and more frequent failures.

The issue of users scanning the screen instead of reading all of it's contents is also a factor when deciding to display PDF's.

Nielson also tells how PDF's have also been known to crash user's computers.

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I think that what you quote here has more to do with the choice of content in a pdf versus content as a normal page and not so much with the choice of viewing a pdf in browser versus having to download it first. –  Marjan Venema Apr 24 '13 at 6:40
    
While you can 'force' a user to view it in a browser by embedding it in a web page, the OP wasn't suggesting that. Rather, just linking to the PDF (which may open it in the, but certainly wouldn't force it to open in the browser). –  DA01 Apr 24 '13 at 7:10
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Also note the 'crash computer' comment was written in 2001. It may not have as much validity 12 years later. –  DA01 Apr 24 '13 at 7:11
    
This is indeed very old. PDF readers now offer quite some navigational features. The main point to take from that article is that content in a PDF is not a substitute for content in a website or other screen-centric medium. This is still an important point because I see a lot of people trying to deliver content to visitors with PDF because that's what they have and it's easy to just upload the file. But it's not very helpful point if what you need to do is deliver a PDF to a visitor of your website. –  Koen Lageveen Apr 24 '13 at 18:37
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The question you should be asking is what is so different about your PDF's that they should be treated differently than other PDF's? Since a PDF can be anything, yours are not special.

What is breaking the user experience of browsing the web these days, is that many websites treat links differently. There is nothing for the user to learn, there is no mental model to be built, from the user's perspective what happens when you click on any link is completely random. One reason for this is that people let their personal preference get in the way of designing a proper interface. I see lots of people that prefer PDF's to be downloaded and make that the rule for other people regardless of what they think. I've had many clients request that links to anything but their website is opened in a new window, but if you fear losing visitors taking them hostage is not the answer.

The only way we can make people experience a sense of autonomy and control when browsing the web is to stop customizing what clicking a link does. For your visitor, your website is just like any other website. Please just let them use, and learn to use, the control that is already at their disposal. Right click in any browser allows you to download a PDF instead of opening it (that is, unless you broke the behavior of the link). Any PDF viewer in the browser has a quick "download me" button. While Nielsen and Norman are probably right, it should be interpreted as aimed at builders of browsers and PDF readers, not at individual website developers.

A bit of personal perspective. If you're doing a literature study that involves looking through dozens and dozens of research papers, the last thing you want to have to do is to keep track of your browser, your downloads, and your PDF viewer. If you're unsure the PDF has what you're looking for it's much much easier to view the PDF in the browser, have a peek, hit the back button. If you need to recall it it's in your browser history, if you don't it's gone. If you downloaded it, you'd need to wait for the download, find it in either the download manager or Windows Explorer, then open it in a reader. If you find you don't need it, you need to close it, delete it, find your way back to your browser.

Literature research made me love the browser-PDF integration. Entire populations depend on it, don't break it.

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+1 I first like to look at the PDF before I save it to disk. Direct downloads would force me to find the right file to remove, much more complicated than the extra click or keystroke to save from a browser tab. –  Hbar May 13 '13 at 18:04
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Firstly, you can (and should?) always give the user autonomy. You can ask the user if he wants to open the pdf in a new tab or download and open the pdf with a preferred application. This is also in line with the UX guideline that the user should always feel in control.

And on the point of opening the pdf in a new tab, here are some guidelines as to make that experience better.

Nielsen 2005: Open New Windows for PDF and other Non-Web Documents

When using PC-native file formats such as PDF or spreadsheets, users feel like they're interacting with a PC application. Because users are no longer browsing a website, they shouldn't be given a browser UI.

Because users frequently close document windows, the best guidelines for linking to non-Web documents are:

  • Open non-Web documents in a new browser window .
  • Warn users in advance that a new window will appear.
  • Remove the browser chrome (such as the Back button) from the new window.
  • Best of all, prevent the browser from opening the document in the first place. Instead offer users the choice to save the file on their harddisk or to open it in its native application (Adobe Reader for PDF, PowerPoint for slides, etc.). Unfortunately, doing so requires a bit of technical trickery: you have to add an extra HTTP header to the transmission of the offending file. The header line to be added is " Content-disposition: Attachment ". If possible, also add " ; filename=somefile.pdf " at the end of this line, to give the browser an explicit filename if the user chooses to save the file. (I thank Sybren Stüvel for providing this code.)
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In my experience, it depends what the PDF is, and why there's a link to it.

If the PDF contains information they need, then (assuming you can't get that info into a regular page, which should always be Plan A) allowing the user to browse the PDF is probably best; users rarely want to take up hard drive space with a PDF when they just need to open it, read out a little info, and move on.

However, if the PDF is a submission or document of some kind, and it's the document itself that's the point then it makes more sense to go straight to download. This is the case on sites like arXiv that act as document repositories, or in situations where the user wants the document to save or send rather than to read (at least immediately).

For example, I worked on a data collection webservice project not too long ago in which the completed forms could be exported as documents, so we displayed the form in HTML, and the "export" button triggered a direct download. Sending the user to view the PDF first breaks their workflow in situations like this; they can see the info on the page, so they don't need to see it again as a PDF (which will take time to load, depending on how snappy your browser's PDF handling is). When in doubt, provide both options as separate buttons or in a dropdown, so the user can decide for themselves whether they want to read the PDF or just download it.

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There are some situations when opening a pdf in browser is undesirable because it will break some of the functionality built into the pdf. For example your pdf may contain built-in scripts that will be ignored by a browser plugin, or maybe your pdf needs to use advanced features of Acrobat Reader. If (and only if) this is your case, then forcing your users to download is a good idea — otherwise they may think your document is simply broken.

If through user behavior research you find that the users of your website prefer to save their pdf documents for later reading (for example, you might be running an online library of some kind), then it might be a good idea to force download. However the number of users who prefer downloading should considerably outweigh the other group, otherwise it's not worth it breaking the default functionality.

I do not know of any other compelling reason to force users to download the content; however as this is your business requirement it might be worth asking if there is a reason for this requirement. Maybe there is. However if they want to implement it "just because", then it's probably not worth it breaking the standard expected behavior.

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Not a suggestion on why it is a good idea, but lots of reasons to avoid it! –  David Clarke Apr 24 '13 at 0:37
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But there's also no guarantee your end users would be using Acrobat Reader (aside from locked down intranets, where perhaps this would be a valid situation for forcing the download...) –  DA01 Apr 24 '13 at 7:08
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I'm not sure that it is even possible to force a download.

I have never tried to implement this solution, and I'm not sure it is completely possible for all platforms. I always let it do what it did, and did not say or imply in the interface it'll download (just indicate it's a PDF and not a link) since so many browsers will view automatically now.

It might be a good idea to ask if it HAS to be a PDF. I've noticed that it is increasingly possible to get organizations (large and small) to get with the times and convert to HTML (or another format) instead.

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The most common situation for me has been PDFs being requested to be download-only. They CAN be forced by adding a header value at the server level, which means you can't just do a simple link to a pdf file. –  JamesEggers Apr 23 '13 at 21:09
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Hi @user1720871. Welcome to the UX SE. Your answer doesn't really answer the question, but just asks for clarification. Maybe it might work better as a comment instead? –  3nafish Apr 23 '13 at 21:52
    
@3nafish: your statement is good guidance, but this user can't comment yet. You need 50 rep to be able to do so. –  Marjan Venema Apr 24 '13 at 6:43
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If possible it's always best to give the users different options. However, allowing them to have a look before downloading the file, it will allow the user to see if the document would be useful. It is a good user experience to allow them to open it in the browser, read the table of contents and then evaluate if it's worth downloading it. Users will not want to download documents that you might not want to use.

It would be important to evaluate in a case to case basis what's the use of the PDF. If it's a known document or a purchase or like a research paper that not many people have seen and they would like to have a quick look first.

The other important aspect is the size. If you are working with large PDFs that the person is likely to read afterwards or print it out.

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Latest Browser supports Force Downloads.

You can try adding "Download" attribute to your link as below

<a href="path/to/file.pdf" download>Download PDF</a>

P.S : This is only works in mordern browsers, also the same works for images too..

Reference : http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2013/04/how-to-use-the-download-attribute/

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The question is more on the usability and behavioral implications of forcing a download vs letting the browser display it (or whatever the user has changed the default behavior to). This answer is more focused on how to force a download which is not what the question is inquiring about. They may have been better as a comment on @user1720871's answer instead. –  JamesEggers Apr 24 '13 at 13:58
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