I am aware that there is a lot of research into page layout methodologies and the flow of design elements (text, diagrams, etc) such as the Gutenberg Diagram, Z-Pattern, F-Pattern, and so on. I'm also aware of other Stack Exchange questions (e.g. this recent one: Page layout - authoritative research into natural flow of text, tables and images).

However, this question is about interactive documents (typically interactive PDFs, but not necessarily so).

I have designed many of these over the years and after coming across the question above, got to thinking that maybe there is some respected research into what makes an interactive document much more usable from a reader's point of view.

Typically (though not always) my interactive PDFs are designed so that they're almost like an entire website within a PDF (i.e. they have a menu structure and make use of images, colour, white space etc). Users can browse and jump around seamlessly within the document as required and these seem to work very well. I've used this approach for technical documents, newsletters, interactive diagrams, help guides and so on and these seem to come across very well, but I'm always looking to continually improve my work.

For example, one area I haven't delved too much into is the use of javascript in my interactive PDFs. I have used this on two occasions with positive results, but I'm not sure if there are any dos and don'ts on using javascript.

Also, I wonder about the compatibility of interactive PDFs with screen reader software for the visually impaired?

And of course, with the explosion of mobile platforms, there's the whole issue of compatibility to ensure that an interactive document displays and functions as intended from Mac/Windows desktops to iOS/Windows Mobile/Android devices.

Obviously, there's quite a bit to this topic, hence why my question is asking for references to any research (if it exists) on best practice for creating interactive documents. My hope is that if any research does exist, some or most of these issues will be covered.

  • Perhaps the biggest problem here is Apple's failure to make iBooks Author capable of deep and profound interactivity. So we don't even know what creative people might do with the ability to make interactive books/documents because it's too much of a stretch to expect them to nut out JavaScript and other means of exploring creative options. And we all know it's impossible for programmers to listen to designers and explore their ideas for them in an assistive manner.
    – Confused
    Commented Apr 16, 2016 at 9:38
  • Yes, I do feel your frustration. A couple of my interactive PDFs required 3rd party software to behave as intended when viewed on iPads and iPhones. Even Adobe's offering for iOS didn't display them properly. This was about 18 months ago, so I'm not sure how much has changed in that time. While I think Apple makes the right judgment call on most things, I do agree with you that this isn't one of them.
    – Monomeeth
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 12:20
  • In 18 months (going on 3 years) there's no significant increase in the powers of interactive book creation software and tools. You haven't missed anything. It's still a quagmire of archaic metaphors for outdated modes of communication with little (or zero) consideration for the powers of interactive content. This problem is not new, unfortunately. Guys like Ted Nelson (that conceived of hyperlinking in the early 60's) have only seen small percentages of their inventive and idealised interpretations of possible future mediums realised because of... I don't really know why. Commercial control?
    – Confused
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 14:27
  • 3
    As someone who nearly exclusively uses non-Adobe, third-party PDF readers, use a website, never an "interactive" PDF. It's much easier for users to work without proprietary extensions. In terms of a usability perspective, I give up immediately when a document requires "locally installed software X". Made properly, and with a modern browser, websites are also much more compatible with screen readers, support an extremely wide variety of features, and shouldn't require special features.
    – Kupiakos
    Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 14:56
  • 2
    I disagree with the premise of the question: That the PDF format is the right solution for interactive documents. As @Kupiakos points out, a proper website has far more interaction potential. The UX benefit of e-books isn't about interaction so much as it is about convenience for users who don't like or don't have room for a physical library. Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 15:32

4 Answers 4


I would narrow down the problem definition - documents are supposed to convey information. And to quote from Bret Victor (http://worrydream.com/MagicInk/#p155):

Information software [...] mimics the experience of reading, not working. It is used for achieving an understanding—constructing a model within the mind. [...] For information software, all interaction is essentially navigation around a data space.

So this is a problem how to design navigation, not interactivity in general:

Other kinds of "interactive documents" are usually called applications, tools, utilities or games, so I wouldn't expect to find much useful info on the topic of "user experience of interactive documents", but a lot of research on the topics of:


There is very little current research, possibly because the use cases for interactive documents has been taken over by the web, and in parallel, the increase in availability of devices and connectivity.

One paper that discusses the attributes of an interactive document can be found at PubMed Central from 2011, 'Interactive Publication: The document as a research tool'.

Key passage:

We consider the following attributes necessary for an interactive publication.

  • Appearance: Paginated view of the document should be similar to that of a traditional article, implying the availability of a large variety of fonts, weights, styles, paragraphing, multi-column formatting, etc.
  • Page transitions: Traditional use of keyboard keys (page up/down) and mouse (scroll bar) should be possible.
  • In-page navigation: Traditional use of keyboard keys (cursor up/down/left/right) and mouse, as well as additional use of control keys (as shortcuts).
  • Image browsing: Commonly used image formats, such as JPEG, PNG, TIFF, DICOM, should be natively supported. It should be easy to encode some degree of interaction with these into the document model.
  • Navigating to an embedded / linked media object: Mouse-click (or keyboard) activation of audio, video and other objects should be possible.
  • Embedded or linked media: objects should be able to invoke appropriate viewers or players.
  • Native support for interactivity: The document model should provide native support for adding interactivity to tabular data, images and other multimedia data.
    • The document model should allow authors to define metadata needed to control interactivity with multimedia data, e.g., start-frame and end-frame numbers for video, row-column selections in a table, etc.
    • These metadata could enhance the reader’s interaction with the document. Data in specialized and proprietary formats should be viewable using appropriate supporting application software.
  • Transmission: The document model should support a reader-controlled order of transmission for data intensive multimedia-rich documents for convenient usage.
  • Embedding and linking of multimedia/interactive objects: The document model should support both embedding and linking of multimedia and
    other interactive data such as dynamic tables or active images.
  • Document integrity and structure: It is imperative that the document be self-contained.

    • That is, the multimedia components should exist within the document, and not simply exist in remote databases at, say, publishers’ Web sites. This is important for several reasons, including the need for major libraries to preserve the scientific record, a difficult task if the contents of the document were scattered in remote locations.
    • The document model should support document integrity by closely linking the text document to the multimedia components. However, for a reader who might not be interested in downloading the datasets associated with the publication, a streaming media service should be available as an alternative.

The bolded text is where I believe the key advantage of an interactive document lies over an interactive website (for example). Link rot is a problem that will only increase on the web, and as a key UX differentiator - the ability to be confident all the content you built into the document when published will still be there in x years time is a benefit to using an interactive document.

This clearly will not answer all your secondary questions - but those are quite specific, and may realistically require you to do some gather some first-party data, or infer from existing research on non-interactive documents.

  • "likely because a significant amount of the use cases for interactive documents has been taken over by the web" this needs some supporting evidence, of some sort.
    – Confused
    Commented Apr 23, 2016 at 21:51
  • I've changed the qualifier on that statement.
    – Midas
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 11:39

Don Norman attempted to do a multimedia version for three of his books a while ago. From what I know, the experiment wasn't a success, you can probably find more about it online. He also talks about it in the last version of Design of Everyday Things.

It is called First Person and here is a short video showcasing some of the ineractions First Person : Don Norman

Here is a wiki entry about the company and their expanded books initiatives.


The initial premise or assumption of your question that having some research that you can reference address these issues

My hope is that if any research does exist, some or most of these issues will be covered.

is probably going to set up unreasonable expectations. As you know, research is designed to answer specific questions under a specific set of circumstances, so the extent to which you can extrapolate those findings to your situation is going to be limited by the scope of the research. Based on the bounty amount you have put up and the number of responses/references provided I would suggest that it is unlikely to address all the issues you have raised.

Let me try to provide a logical way to look at the things you should consider, and let you come to your own conclusions:

  • Self-containment: this appears to be an advantage to your users in terms of providing a 'better' user experience on interactive documents compared to web pages. In essence is true in many ways, not just because you can download a copy and run it in your own environment (if you have the right software - but most people will have a compatible browser for web pages so keep that in mind). But if the interactive document depends on other software applications then it loses that advantage.
  • Performance: this is probably also an advantage of interactive documents, but it depends on how they are implemented. I have seen lots of PDF documents with 3d models embedded and usually I don't open it in a browser tab but the equivalent application. But this is probably more due to network speed than anything else.
  • Accessibility: I am guessing that it might be easier to make a webpage accessible but I believe that the medium you use, regardless of where it is embedded will introduce similar problems. PDF files can also be designed to be accessible so it also comes down to implementation methods.
  • Richness of interaction: I guess this is largely a technology issue, and by default one might imagine that designing a webpage gives you more flexibility and access to a richer range of interactive and multimedia content. Whether this has impact on other aspects of the user experience depends on how it is implemented, but in general you might expect the solution you use for creating the interactive document would pose more constraints on what you can and cannot design into the user interaction.
  • Maintenance/freshness: I believe that it would be easier to maintain and update online documents because people often overlook documents when making updates and changes to the content as it is not generally dynamically linked to the rest of the website. Having said that, it still comes down to implementation details and any particular constraints you might have.
  • Overall user experience: I guess if you look at each of these factors individually for your situation, and work out the pros and cons in the way you implement webpages or interactive documents, you'll find that if done correctly there's probably not that much difference to the user. Any research you look at is going to give webpages or interactive documents a higher rating than the other for each of these aspects. Understanding how it applies in your situation is going to help you justify your decision to implement content in one way as opposed to an alternative solution.

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