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First off I think its important to say this is a business to business website that isn't web / techy related. It's a manufacturing company selling to blue collared contractors.

On our existing site we have

You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to access some documents on this site.

Followed by the Get Acrobat Reader logo as link. As so:

enter image description here

Is this something that business websites should still do or is it unnecessary at this stage? Again we're a manufacturing company selling to contractors, not a tech company selling to other... tech companies. If that makes a difference, I don't know. You're welcome to address it as one issue or both issues, whatever you think is necessary. Around 90% of our traffic is desktop/laptop.

  • What's important is letting the user know something links to a .pdf file and not just another page. Like others said, most browsers can handle pdf files natively, even on mobile, so offering a download link for Reader is now just a relic of the past. – invot Apr 23 '18 at 19:54
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Typically it shouldn't since most modern browsers have native support for PDFs and downloading and installing Adobe Acrobat is a painful process and should be avoided when necessary, especially since your website is non tech-related. That being said, there is also the question of what browsers your users run your website on. There are people who still run old browsers or browsers with no built-in support for PDFs. In those cases, Adobe Acrobat is necessary to run these files so they do need to install it.

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    There are alternatives to Adobe's product such as SumatraPDF. Saying you need Adobe Acrobat to read PDFs is as wrong as saying you need Internet Explorer to view a website. – nwp Oct 13 '14 at 20:21
  • @nwp The point I'm making is whether or not you need to install a piece of software in order to open PDFs whether it's Adobe Acrobat, SumatraPDF or whatever. Since Adobe Acrobat is the most popular and the de facto standard of PDF readers, I used that in my answer instead. – Savv Oct 14 '14 at 13:28
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Most modern desktop browsers do, in fact, support PDFs. So the need for downloading another tool would be limited to the select few users who don't have one of these browsers.

But users find PDFs jarring. NNGroup said in 2011 called using PDFs for online reading the second-biggest mistake in modern web design. Why?

  1. PDFs are typically presented in a separate reading view from a normal web page (a PDF reading view looks like you're reading a page or a digital book).
  2. PDFs are often styled differently from a web page.
  3. Other interactions with a PDF document are different, such as scrolling (dealing with gaps between pages) and selecting/copying text.
  4. Many PDFs have a multi-column layout designed for printed pages instead of device screens, so they can require a lot more scrolling up and down than other webpages. It's a reading experience which causes users to spend more of their effort managing the tool so that they can read a document, rather than actually reading it. (I'm aware that CSS advances are now making multi-column, print-like layouts more possible and easier to use on the web.)
  5. PDFs often load more slowly than other web pages, whether they have to open another application or not.

"Get Adobe Acrobat" sounds like an at least partially obsolete statement to me, considering the need today for responsive design.

With responsive design, I would add to this: PDFs are often not optimized for browsing on a mobile device. With their assumption that users' screens are large and their small text size, they typically provide a user experience comparable to being served a desktop web page on mobile.

So, I would still consider Nielsen Norman Group's comments about "PDF shock" valid. Therefore, I would still recommend some sort of warning before users are about to switch file formats from a more conventional web page or web app into reading a PDF. It may tell them, for example, to download and print the file instead of trying to read it in their browser, or to switch from a phone to a larger device for a better reading experience. PDF icons are widely recognized, so I would recommend using a PDF icon (with "PDF" in the link's anchor text) to show users that they are about to look at a PDF.

But what about users with old browsers that cannot open PDFs? These users are often less technically-inclined (laggards), so we need a way to help them without making them summon their IT support staff. They are the users likely to need the most help using a computer in the first place.

For them, I would suggest a help link that says, "Need help opening these PDF files?" or something to that effect. This could bring up a lightbox or another page telling them what they can do, depending on the device that they are using. Possible recommendations would include downloading software, downloading an app, trying another browser, or switching to a different device.

Keep in mind that the Adobe Reader is not a user's only choice in reading PDFs, just like how IE is not their only choice in browsers. A recommendation of a tool should be more along the lines of "you can use this tool, and we suggest using it" - in other words, a good starting point - than "this is the only tool that you can use / this is the tool that you must use". Of course, a corporate IT department can often add its own rulings into this.

And the help should also address the problem of mobile users being served with desktop PDFs. As always, test this recommendation with users.

By the way, Adobe Reader (not Acrobat Reader) is available in the Android Google Play store, and it is still available from Adobe for desktop machines. So it's not that much of a relic, although putting a "Get Acrobat Reader" button on your site is a little 1990s. (I'm thinking of "Best Viewed with Netscape Navigator".)

  • I'm sure this will come off rude but I hate not leaving a comment when its clear you took some time to answer it. I agree and think its a valid point about the Adobe Reader not being the only choice and the part about checking the Browser and serving the relevant information based on what browser. Thank you for that. The rest however is completely unwarranted and inaccurate. As I said, I'm not a tech company, I'm a manufacturing company. From your own link, "PDF is great for printing and for distributing manuals and other big documents that need to be printed." – Ryan Oct 14 '14 at 13:36
  • I already put as much as possible on the site but some things have to be documentations and forms our dealers can print out. I've already taken the extra steps on some so they're available online and then as download. I just feel a lot of your answer was making assumptions and didn't even mention when it is okay to use PDF. You spent a lot of time saying its never okay basically. I just can't agree with that. Thanks for the rest of the suggestions though. – Ryan Oct 14 '14 at 13:38
  • The Slideshare presentation linked in the answers addresses when it is ok to use PDF: slideshare.net/4Syllables/…. – David Oct 14 '14 at 15:53
  • I understand that. But your answer would leave anyone that reads it, without reading those links, under the impression that it is never okay to use PDF. That's what I have a problem with in marking this the correct answer. – Ryan Oct 14 '14 at 15:54

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