In discussing my question Does any research/study exist on what makes an interactive document better from a user experience perspective? an interesting argument has arisen that using a website is a better approach for creating an interactive document, as opposed to creating an interactive PDF for example.

To my mind, an interactive document is not the same as a website. Sure, they can be designed to be very similar and can share some of the same attributes and goals, but a single document that is entirely portable and can be viewed on any computer regardless of whether it is online or not will meet the needs of many situations that a website cannot do in the same way or with the same ease.

Some examples I can think of where creating interactive documents (such as PDF) may be preferable:

  • for organisations that have staff on the road without easy access to the internet
  • in situations where the content is commercial-in-confidence or has some other type of security restriction on it
  • where ensuring that what is viewed appears exactly as intended (although the interactivity may not always work as intended on some devices)
  • to ensure that when it is printed it prints as intended (incl. the ability to prevent printing altogether)
  • to ensure maximum portability
  • to minimise the risk of these documents being blocked by "email" and "internet" gateways
  • for archival/legal purposes where ensuring that an accurate historical record needs to be kept of the entire document without fear that images and other interdependent files have changed or been deleted

The above are only some examples.

I know an argument could be put forward that you can create a website that is stored locally (and not in fact published online at all), but the portability of these is questionable. For example, one can email a single PDF while one cannot email a website. Sure, you could compress the site (e.g. into .zip format) but many email gateways will block compressed archives.

So, I am wondering what research or studies exist relating to the comparison of interactive documents with websites from a user experience perspective, and in what situation(s) should one choose either option over the other to ensure the best experience for users.

  • I don't think there's a fast and hard rule on this one, simply because there are many different constraints and use cases as you have pointed out, so it is just a matter of choosing the most suitable solution for your requirements. The best user experience is the implementation that solves the users' problems in the most suitable way.
    – Michael Lai
    Apr 21, 2016 at 23:02
  • Realize that if a PDF cannot be opened without Adobe Reader, or a system unsupported by Adobe, it is not maximally portable. This means most "interactivity" in PDFs is excluded. Any desire to prevent printing can also always be circumvented.
    – Kupiakos
    Apr 21, 2016 at 23:12
  • True. But most large organisations use a standard operating environment (SOE), so if they have a need for something like an interactive PDF, they would just ensure that Adobe Reader is part of that SOE. Of course, your point is taken in the event that it is an interactive document aimed at consumers or potential clients - the risk is they may not have Adobe Reader installed. However, Adobe Reader is pre-installed on most computers and is a free download if not, so the risk is not great and I believe that reducing risk is a better approach than trying to eliminate it altogether.
    – Monomeeth
    Apr 21, 2016 at 23:21

1 Answer 1


This question is a false dichotomy from implementation point of view and the UX questions are unrelated to which implementation is chosen (if done well), so it is very unlikely that any such research exists:

  • *.pdf, *.docx, *.odt and other "document" formats can and often do contain non-portable content, e.g. links to dead sites, embedded videos/pictures without codecs (assuming the format will be supported by the OS/apps in 20 years or not needed in 20 years)
  • "websites" format - html+css+javascript+base64-encoded-binary-data can be stored as single offline file format (a proprietary web archive *.mht format in Internet Explorer already exists and it can be replicated in cross-browser-compatible *.html - see e.g. https://stackoverflow.com/questions/1207190/embedding-base64-images)

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