“No PDF for you!” The destructive power of arrogant thinking

Alan Pringle / Opinion18 Comments

I love it when an offhand remark on Twitter turns into a smart conversation.

I was joking with the reference to the much-maligned Windows ME, but Al Martine’s “arrogant thinking” observation is correct. Microsoft was foolish to think one new OS could change decades of how people use the PC interface: “You don’t need a stinkin’ Start button or the ability to boot to a desktop view. You’ll get our new Metro interface and LIKE it.”

Microsoft is about to eat crow with the release of Windows 8.1, which will include—drum roll—a Start button and booting to the desktop interface.

Tech comm professionals can learn some lessons from Microsoft’s poor decisions on Windows 8. We are experiencing huge shifts in how we can distribute content: PDF files/print are being superseded by web pages, ebooks, wikis, video, and more. But that doesn’t mean we just stop producing PDF files because they aren’t cutting edge.

You can’t force your customers to happily rely on new output formats when you’ve supplied just PDF content for the past umpteen releases. This is particularly true if contracts or industry regulations specify how you provide content. If you have a legal requirement to offer PDF, print, or some other format, it doesn’t matter that your HTML pages are searchable or that the EPUB version works well on a tablet. The HTML and EPUB don’t fulfill your obligations.

Even if you don’t have legal reasons to continue to provide PDF files, it’s the height of hubris (and stupidity) to assume your customers will immediately accept content distributed in new ways. Instead, be smart by offering your customers choices in how they consume content. For example, if you want to establish an HTML version of your content, your HTML pages could include links to the PDF manual in the header area.  Google searches will lead customers to particular HTML pages, but if customers want the PDF version,  they can get the PDF file with little extra effort.

More than once, I’ve heard, “PDF is dead, so we aren’t going to offer it any more.” That kind of short-sighted thinking can indeed lead to death—the death of your career at the hands of angry customers who clog up the phone lines and mailboxes of your support department.

Let your business requirements guide how you deliver content, and introduce new outputs alongside your PDF files and other “traditional” formats. Otherwise, your content—and the product it supports—may join Windows 8 as another casualty of arrogant thinking.


About the Author

Alan Pringle


Content strategy consulting. Content operations. Eating (preferably pastries and chocolate). COO at Scriptorium.

18 Comments on ““No PDF for you!” The destructive power of arrogant thinking”

    1. Scott Abel’s description of “[…] decades of mediocre (at best) customer experiences” seems far too generous.

    1. I entirely agree with this! I am particularly impressed with how easy the old Sun (now Oracle) site made this possible. Very visible links to high-quality PDF output … I don’t they generated it on the fly, but it certainly felt that way at any level of the on-line documentation tree.

  1. I’d echo the point Brian Proffitt made in the original article…that folks are satisfied with what they have. Aside from dedicated gearheads who will always try the next new thing for its own sake, most folks view the computer as a means to an end and if it’s working satisfactorily, then that’s good enough. And like a lot of computer users, I don’t pay attention to the OS when it’s working (maybe some people do, but I got work to do here…no time to admire the fancy effects!). It’s only when it sucks that it draws my attention.

    Really like your tie-in to PDFs, though. They might not the the darling of the output world, but they still have a lot of fans. Dedicated fans. Camp-out-overnight-for-tickets, follow-the-tour-in-a-VW-microbus fans.

    It’s simple…figure out what users need and give it to them. Don’t figure out what you want to give them and then convince them to need it. Let the marketing folks do that. (Oops. Did I say that out loud?)

    1. “Don’t figure out what you want to give them and then convince them to need it.” Amen.

      I’m not sure even the best marketing folks could placate long-time product users if PDF were summarily removed as a choice when content has been delivered for years just as PDF. That said, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have marketing on board to explain the benefits of new formats when you roll them out. Also, new outputs can become marketing fodder themselves.

    2. I have a different view to Leigh on whether it is simply a matter of figuring out “what users need and give it to them”. When the US car industry effectively went bankrupt in 2008, Thomas Friedman wrote a piece in the New York Times which struck a chord with me. The most memorable para was:

      Over the years, Detroit bosses kept repeating: “We have to make the cars people want.” That’s why they’re in trouble. Their job is to make the cars people don’t know they want but will buy like crazy when they see them. I would have been happy with my Sony Walkman had Apple not invented the iPod. Now I can’t live without my iPod. I didn’t know I wanted it, but Apple did. Same with my Toyota hybrid.

      I am not necessarily arguing for abandoning PDF, but I would say that we have to be careful about giving people what they've been getting in the past if that means missing opportunities to deliver information in better ways. Are we being condescending (or arrogant) by assuming that readers are set in their ways and prefer PDF, or they can't learn things, or they get frightened by change?

      I come across this a lot; recently, I was told that documents needed to be produced in paper, because the readers aren't computer-literate and will only read it if it's put in front of them. Or that a WebHelp document shouldn't included dropdown links because readers are too stupid to know how to open them. Or that popups shouldn't be used because otherwise that information won't appear when they print the Web page. Or that chunking of information into topics won't work for my readers because I want them to read all ten pages.

      But that's probably a tangent. The point I wanted to make is Friedman's. If we concentrate on creating PDFs that look just like the paper manuals and Sony Walkmans of last century, we may blow the opportunity to give people information in forms they can't live without.

      1. Tony, I completely agree we should not rely on the assumption that users are too stupid, tech illiterate, or whatever as an excuse not to innovate. I, too, have seen that happen, and it’s not pleasing.

        We do need to implement new ways to share content to keep up with changes in technology and society (plus, I wouldn’t have a job without them!). While implementing the new methods, however, we must be aware of all users. Some users may still like the old ways, while others immediately adopt the new methods. By continuing to offer PDF files (or other “old-school” outputs) along with the new distribution channels, we can satisfy everyone. If metrics show that the older distribution methods are used less and less over time because the new channels have caught on, maybe then you can reassess whether it’s time to discontinue the older formats.

        P.S. For every iPod, there is a Windows 8 and a New Coke (although the cynical side of me wonders if New Coke was an intentional marketing move).

  2. Glad you wrote that! I just finished a completely renovated HTML-based help system and decided to remove the index from the help system (as well as a separate glossary – but I included definitions via “pop-ups”). Since I had to deliver a PDF as well as a sort of backup I included the PDF file in the help system below the TOC. And added the glossary and the index, thereby enhancing the PDF and making use of features that no one needs in a webhelp (we all use the search for that).
    I felt a bit awkward to do that but now it seems perfectly meaningful for usability reasons.

    1. I bet things would have been even more awkward if you didn’t deliver that PDF backup when some customers still prefer that format.

      Granted, I don’t know all the details about your product’s users, but I suspect you decided putting out just the revamped HTML system without the PDF was not sufficient.

  3. I develop SOPs for healthcare business in Florida and all content is subject to FDA audit and approval.

    The only approved format is PDF and they are reluctant to use other deliverables ever for internal documentation. My business case document where I proposed friendlier deliverables (for phone or online manuals) is part of the silos now; cannot help it.

  4. As long as the only alternative we offer is a tri-pane help system structured like a book, I think we can expect people to keep asking for PDF. It is the lesser of two evils for reading material structured in that way.

    But we should note that there does not seen to be this same demand for PDF in other areas of online information delivery. When we start to produce Every Page is Page One Web content, or even help content, that works properly in those media, I think we will see the demand for PDF decline.

    So yes, PDF is old fashioned and should be phased out, but only after we have moved to a more modern information design that works on online media, and our customers have accepted it. We can’t just throw away the form without fixing the content.

  5. Our hardware product customers often request a PDF when we distribute only HTML content, so we now always publish a PDF manual and provide a link to it from our HTML content. Some of our users prefer PDF because they like to print an entire manual, and some have limited internet access and want to download a 1-file manual for future offline reference instead of installing an HTML package or accessing the web.

    Our internal review processes also still demand that an entire publication be reviewed, not just topics, and the preferred format for our reviewers is PDF. No one wants to receive a package of 200 HTML topics that they have to install and review, or provide comments on individually.

    So as content providers, why would we phase out a useful output format because it is “old fashioned” when we can so easily publish our structured, topic-based XML content in any format our users need?

  6. In my experience, the “X thing we did before is dead, ” argument tends to come from upper tier managers looking for easy ways to cut costs and reduce staff.

    These folks come to the table with a lot of “management” experience and no clue what their reporting employees really do for a living and the company/business needs they satisfy. They rarely think of the customer.

    I’ve seen this argument kill or maim multiple support channels: phone, email, print help, pdf help, web help, chat, etc.

  7. The vast majority of product support techs I have worked with prefer a PDF TOC and index in every technical manual to expedite locating topics and answers to clients phone questions and inquiries, especially in large manuals that cover a variety of complex information. Oftentimes, the PS techs have a stressed, anxious person on the phone who needs fixes to a frozen operating system, or who must deal with first-time error messages. “Long live the PDF format.”

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