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What is considered to be the best practice regarding making PDF files easily browse-able for mobile users? Should PDFs be converted to responsive web pages whenever possible?

  • Don't know about best practices but as a user I will find a PDF file disturbing, even if my phone opens it automatically. It's worst on a PC if you need to open Acrobat Reader. – A.L Feb 20 '14 at 16:50
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    Why do you send PDF files to the user? – A.L Feb 20 '14 at 16:51
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    not using them. Don't you have any other option? – PatomaS Feb 21 '14 at 0:33
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I could not find any UX research about PDF and mobile but this article from Jakob Nielsen about PDF usage applies: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/avoid-pdf-for-on-screen-reading/

Just to highlight some key ideas from the article concerning PDF usage:

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.

...

PDF is great for distributing documents that need to be printed. But that is all it's good for. No matter how tempting it might be, you should never use PDF for content that you expect users to read online. Forcing users to browse PDF documents makes your website's usability about 300% worse relative to HTML pages.

...

...often see users getting lost in PDF because the print-oriented viewer gives them only a small peephole on a big, complicated layout and they can't scroll it in the simple, linear manner they are accustomed to on the Web. Instead, PDF files often use elaborate graphic layouts and split the content into separate units for each sheet of print. Although this is highly appropriate for printed documents, it causes severe usability problems online.

...

You should use PDF only for documents that users need to download and print. Which documents fall in this category? Anything with five pages or more is a good candidate, since users don't want to read a lot of text on the screen.

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Because PDF is not the standard Web page format, it dumps users into a non-standard user interface. Deviating from the norm hurts usability because, for example, scrolling works differently, as do certain commands, such as the one to make text larger (or smaller). Also, after finishing with a PDF document, users sometimes close the window instead of clicking the Back button, thus losing their navigation history.

A more recent note (2011) about PDF by the NNGroup: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/making-hated-design-elements-work/

Usually, PDF files torment users on websites and intranets. Posting a sales brochure, annual shareholder report, or the HR manual online as a single, lumpy PDF file is a sure prescription for usability problems. Much better to convert the content into a navigable information space and rewrite it according to the guidelines for writing for the Web.

However, NNGroup contends that PDF has it uses where it's necessary:

[PDF] are just not in the realm of interactive information access. When people want to download a report for later reference, PDF shines.

...

Unfortunately, even good uses of bad design techniques are usually doomed. Users hate these designs so much that they can't overcome their negative first impressions in the fraction of a second they allocate to stuff they think they don't need.

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    I'm surprised that this article would still be applicable. A lot has changed in 13 years including back-lit devices, and a general comfort with the technology. Is there any more recent research which supports this? – user43780 Feb 21 '14 at 14:50
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    A lot has changed in 13 years but not a lot has changed on the PDF side. I've updated my answer to include a more recent (2011) note about PDF by the NNGroup. – Chairman Meow Feb 23 '14 at 19:58
  • One should read everything written by Jakon Nielson with a fair helping of skepticism--especially anything this old. He's not necessarily wrong, but tends to oversimplify things to the point of being, at best, generic rules of thumb that end up having plenty of exceptions. (That said, I mostly agree with the statements quoted...) – DA01 Feb 23 '14 at 21:16
  • @DA01 You're right, best practices are general rules of thumb and each company is different and unique. You have to leverage the rules but apply them based on your company's unique situation. – Chairman Meow Feb 23 '14 at 22:18
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    The situation has changed in 13 years, but mostly in the worse-off direction. Trying to read a PDF document on a mobile phone is like reading a paper document from 5 meters away... – Pasha Mar 4 '14 at 22:50
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Whenever possible, web content should be web content...meaning HTML.

Are PDFs acceptable? Sure. Sometimes the reality of the situation is that PDF is the viable alternative. In that case, the same general 'best practices' should be maintained:

  • use text based PDFs over scanned text whenever possible
  • make them as small as you can (in terms of file size)
  • let the user know they are about to click on a PDF file ahead of time
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When not using PDF is not an Option For better or worse, the PDF is a legacy format that is difficult to escape. We have been using it for product briefings used by doctors in the field. Most medical sales people use laptops and tablets. It would be near impossible to rebuild all these files, and then as others have mentioned, the .pdf is the most reliable format for printing which is also a comon need.

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Two ways you can help make .pdfs work on tablets.

  1. Optimize for web view and make sure the font choices are sensible for broad optimization (common for the bulk of the text). Outline unique headline fonts if they are critical to the brand image.

  2. Consider using a specialized viewer ( if you have a dedicated sales team for example as we do) Adobe's tablet reader is overly complex, bloated and does not view Video.. "ezPDF Reader" is made for mobile. There are others...

Putting the files on devices you can put the .pdf files on a bookshelf, or add them to the data files of a reader library. Apparently, there is no really easy way to do this, so many will be viewing your .pdf on a browser, which is not optimum.

Publishing as an APP Note: Don't recommend converting to apps. the reveiw process may prove unreliable and you may even be delayed by weeks before being denyed approval.

Convert to HTML You could also convert to html.. there are services and software for this.. www.pdftohtml.net but considering the problems with versioning etc.. probably not practical.

You can download the tablet optimized .pdf here: http://www.coalign.com/case-studies.html

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The article from NNGroup is pretty old from non-mobile age. And the comments above try to deal with Pdf in general as a content model on websites. However, the question is more about mobile use cases.

In my experiences as a user and mobile developer, most of mobile users are not familiar with Pdf on mobile devices.

On the one side, different devices (and OSs:operating systems) offer different support in terms of Pdf. E.g. IOS allows to open a Pdf directly in browser but android browser starts a download.

One the other side, download manager and its folders of mobile OSs are not well accessible. For users, it is a big challenge to find downloaded files later again.

Furthermore even after compressing, Pdf files with HD-images (>300dpi) are still big enough and downloading them with a 3G connection is a nightmare, a UX killer.

In my opinion Pdf should always be the latest approach to offer some kind of large content (I find the measure "more then 5 pages" awesome) for later use. If it is the case, I would offer an option to send a Pdf via email or other (social) sharing channels instead a download link.

So you can increase accessibility and availability of your Pdfs.

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