This is another in a series responding to questions from my TC Dojo series on Bottom-up Information Architecture.
Q: We are still frequently requested to deliver PDFs. What is the impact of this new way of writing when the deliverable also needs to be PDF?
A: One of the things we have discovered about documentation preferences is that what people ask for and what they use are often different things. So the fact that you are still being asked for PDFs does not necessarily mean people are still using them. On the other hand, they may be, if they have special needs or you are not providing a better alternative.
JoAnn Hackos reported that one of her customers did a study in which they moved their content to a linked topic-based architecture. They found that users still asked for PDFs, but when they looked at the metrics, they found most people were actually using the online topics, not the PDF.
I think there are several possible explanations for this:
- People may not be clear on what you are asking. If they hear “documentation” as “manual” they may think their choices are “PDF” and “paper”. In this case, most people will opt for PDF. But people today are often less interested in whether a product has a manual than if it is “Googleable” — that is, if a Google search turns up good information about it. PDFs don’t tend to make for Googleable content, but you asked about a manual, right?
- If you ask “PDF or HTML” they may think you mean handing them a CD with static HTML pages on it — which means HTML with no search engine and probably little or no linking. If that is what they think you mean, they probably want PDF so they can search it. (Every time I have asked a customer why they wanted PDF, the response has been “so I can search it”. That tells me they assume all the other options are harder to search, which may be true if your content is not where Google can see it.)
- If your content is organized like a book, it may be easier to use when presented as a book. This may be true even if people are trying to use it bottom-up. Content whose architecture is all top-down is very hard to use when presented as a collection of fragments.
- If you are creating highly fragmented content (as is often the case when writers take DITA’s task/concept/reference structure too much to heart), it frustrates readers who want to scroll for related content. A PDF is scrollable. But if you created content that was a useful length, it will usually support any search-by-scrolling that the user wants to do.
In short, you may be being asked for PDF either because that is what users are used to asking for, or because what you are delivering as an alternative is hard to search and scroll. Presenting content with a well-thought-out bottom-up architecture will usually remove the desire for PDF, though the habit of asking for it may continue for some time.
That said, if your customers really do want PDFs, what does that mean?
- Is it a way of saying that they really want a book — a linear narrative to read from beginning to end? That’s unlikely. John Carroll found that even people who think they read like this really don’t, but sometimes you have to give the customer what they think they want, not what they will really use. On the other hand, many useful books are actually collections of independent articles. You can certainly collect EPPO topics together into a collection like this and issue it as a PDF. This gives them what they think they want and what they will actually use. (But if you have verified that they really really want a single linear narrative, write that.)
- Is it a way of saying that they want content that they can use off line because they do not have connectivity in their work location. In this case, chances are they don’t want to travel with a truck load of manuals. They want the docs they need for the work they have to do today. A well planned EPPO topic set can let them just print the topics they need for today. You can either provide a PDF of each topic, or a PDF of a related collection of topics from which they can print an appropriate selection.
- Is it in order to meet the requirements of some regulation or process that they do not have the ability to change? If so, create a PDF by creating a collection of EPPO topics in a reasonable order. Yes, this may introduce some redundancies in the context-setting material for each topic, but in this case redundancy is good, as people are not likely to actually read the entire PDF. Also remember that the PDF format does support linking, so you can still richly link your topics to each other.
So, if your customers are asking for PDF, you can certainly meet that request within an Bottom-up Information Architecture and an Every Page is Page One information design. However, it is important to try to establish why they are asking for PDF. Is it just an old habit, a misunderstanding of the question or the options, or is it a legitimate need that should be met in a specific way?
The world of content is in a time of transition. Neither readers nor waiters nor regulators nor managers have all fully accommodated to the changes that the Web has brought to how information is located and consumed. As such, both the book model, and book model formats such as PDF may be with us for a while yet.
For a long time now, however, we have been producing content on the book model, using book-model tools, and then doing a best effort transformation to Web output. It is time (and past time) to reverse this priority. Even if we still have to produce book-like outputs as well as Web-like outputs, it is time to put the Web first in our design decisions and our tool selections.