Learning from PDFs

PDFs don’t seem terribly interesting.  Few people would say they love them, and more than a few would say they hate them. But PDFs can offer content strategists important insights into the needs of content users who want to build an understanding of a topic.

In 2001, Jakob Nielsen pronounced: “Avoid PDF for On-Screen Reading.”  Nearly a decade and a half later, 1.8 billion PDFs are on the web. PDFs don’t seem to be losing momentum either.  A recent article on Econsultancy stated: “Optimising PDFs for search is one of the most overlooked SEO opportunities available today.”

Among digerati, PDFs have a reputation nearly as bad as Adobe Flash or Microsoft Word.  Ask a content strategist about PDFs, and you are likely to hear:

  • PDFs are for dinosaurs
  • No one reads PDFs
  • PDFs are unusable
  • PDFs reflect legacy thinking of putting print-first, digital last
  • You can’t read a PDF on a mobile phone
  • (Various curse words)

It’s time to talk about the elephant in the room. The title for this post borrows from the name of a classic book on architecture by Robert Venturi called “Learning from Los Vegas” which, in the words of its publisher, called “for architects to be more receptive to the tastes and values of ‘common’ people.”   That book critiqued rigid, rationalist solutions promoting the supposed perfections of modernist design.  Venturi’s approach foreshadowed the spirit of user centered design, which encourages designers to look at how people actually use things, instead of focusing on how designers would like them to. Building on existing social practices is sometimes referred to as paving the cowpaths.

Unlike Venturi, I’m not going to issue a manifesto. PDFs do have numerous issues, and scarcely exemplify ideals of smart, flexible, modular content.  Nonetheless, the popularity of PDFs with knowledge-centric professionals such as doctors, scholars, scientists, and lawyers, challenges any smug beliefs we may have that PDFs are only used by hapless paper-pushers awaiting retirement.

ReadCube, an app developer that works with publishers such as Wiley, Springer and Palgrave Macmillan, notes that readers often reject HTML versions of content.  They state: “Publishers and platform providers find that despite the significant amount of value added to the full text HTML pages on their platforms, the vast majority of users choose to click on the PDF download link.”  Apparently no one told the research scientists who are downloading these PDFs that HTML is superior.

While it is true that much content in PDFs is never viewed, it is also true that some people choose to have their most important content in the PDF format.  PDFs are notorious for burying nuggets of content in a larger body.  PDFs fuse together everything: all the content and presentation sealed in one package, making the output inflexible.  But some people have figured out how to turn that vice into an asset.

The Dream of Digital Paper

PDFs have long traded on the notion that they represent paper in digital form.  Originally they were simply a format used to allow people to print out content onto physical paper.  But with the rise of tablets, they have more closely mimicked some of the affordances of paper.  The iPad is the platform of choice for viewing PDFs.  The name iPad is a portmanteau of interactive and pad (of paper).  Numerous PDF viewing apps are available for the iPad such as Papers, Papership, and Docphin.  Last year, Sony introduced a dedicated PDF-tablet with a 13 inch E Ink screen and a stylus.   Sony’s Digital Paper is targeted at law professionals (to read and annotate legal documents and take notes) and entertainment professionals (to annotate scripts and share revisions with cast and crew).

Readers often favor the PDF format because of its ability to present content with sophisticated layouts like those used in paper documents.  Layouts for long form content are different from short form, because of the need to scan, look ahead, and back track while reading.  Even though CSS can be used with HTML to deliver complex tables and multi-column text, the creation of such layouts can be challenging, especially when the content is also expected to work on small screens. As a result, such layouts are rarer for HTML content.

A feature unique to PDFs is the ability to scrawl on them. People can add markings of different kinds: sweeping arrows and brackets, idiosyncratic symbols, impromptu diagrams, and doodles.  It is a rare example of where the audience can bring their own personality to what they are viewing.  By leaving own’s one digital handwriting on the content, the reader can show “I was here,” and others who see the markings will know that too. The ability to draw on top of the content symbolizes how people who use PDFs are often active users of the content, not passive ones.

Audience Control Over Content

Power users of PDFs share several traits.  They need:

  • reliable access to the content
  • to know the provenance of the content
  • to reuse the material in the content

All these goals align well with principles in content strategy.  If people believe that PDFs support these needs better than HTML, we have an opportunity to consider how to support these needs more effectively with HTML content.


One motivation for using PDFs is certainty over access.  Being able to download something reduces the risk that the content might not be available in the future.  People have had the experience of online content seeming to disappear.  Sometimes content that’s wanted has been taken down, but other times it is moved so that links no longer work.  If someone needs to rely on a search engine to find content again, the task can be daunting, given how much content is available.  As content ages, its search ranking sinks, and people forget what search terms yielded results originally.

I download PDF copies of manuals for devices and software I own.  If I didn’t do that, and need to find the manual online, the task of finding the content can be annoying, since many spammy content farms have been built around searches for product manuals.

Defensive downloading is a lousy experience.  The best strategy to help people re-locate content online is to maintain current links and redirects, and make sure that site search works well, so if the user only remembers the source of the content, but not a precise description of it, they can still locate what they need.


A weakness of most online content is the quality of information about the origin of the content.  Historically, people viewed content online and could see what site hosted the content.  Yet content is increasingly becoming separated from its source.  PDFs offer a preview of some broader issues relating to content provenance.

More sophisticated PDF viewers recognize that users will later need to know where the content came from.  They add metadata about the content.  Often, they collect the metadata automatically, by either finding an identifier on the content, such as a Digital Object Identifier (DOI) number, or by matching the title and other text in the article with online bibliographic databases that contain records for articles.  If there is no metadata already available, users have an option to add their own to the PDF.

searching for metadata (screenshot via Paperclip)
locating metadata (screenshot via Papership)

Most HTML content lacks identifying metadata.  If you separate the content from the source, you don’t know who created it.  Nimble content, which goes to people rather than expects people to come to it, needs to indicate its identity so that people know where it has come from. Brands need to identify their content using standards such as schema.org metadata for articles and blog posts.

Distilling and Reusing Material

HTML content can seem like a disconnected fragment when encountered outside of the information architecture of a website or app.

PDFs liberate readers from relying on the context provided by the publisher.  PDFs can provide content at many different levels of detail, and give readers control over how they combine and sort through content. Readers can create their own context to understand the information.

Supply Your Own Context

Let me illustrate how PDFs let you supply your own context with a personal example. Sometimes I need to consult standards documents — tedious tomes to wade through.  Because they are so long, some organizations break them into separate articles, but then you’d need to bounce between the articles to find the information you seek.  Fortunately most present the standard as one long HTML article.  But even with hyperlinks within the articles, it can still be a lot of information to digest.  So I convert the article to PDF, and view the PDF in an app on my Mac called Highlights.  In Highlights I can (you guessed it) highlight the parts of the standard of interest to me.  But what’s even more useful is that I can export these highlighted passages directly into a new Evernote document.  So the long standards document gets transformed into a selection of greatest hits.

My example illustrates a more general information use pattern: Survey, Distill, Apply.

PDFs are generally multipage documents discussing a common theme.  This allows them to deliver three levels of information: A collection of PDFs about a theme, a single PDF concerning a theme, and specific content within the PDF addressing a theme.   With HTML content, single page articles address a smaller theme, and it is less common for users to organize items into collections.

When users survey what content is available relating to a theme, they may look at information they’ve collected in one of several ways. They can:

  • search for items mentioning the theme
  • look at tags associated with items
  • look at summaries of items.

PDF management applications can let users find content by filtering according to metadata, and even locate themes using text analytics.  A number of applications offer these features, but a free app called Qiqqa may offer the most comprehensive range of tools.

Collections can be searched according to various metadata criteria such as topic tags and fields such as author.

filtering a collection (screenshot via Qiqqa)
filtering a collection (screenshot via Qiqqa)

In addition to filtering, Qiqqa supports information exploration of content coming from different sources.  It can identify related items, such as other content by the same author or on the same topics.  It also allows users to create their own associations between content items, but letting them mind-map topics and incorporate PDF items as nodes in their mind maps.

Once users have identified items of interest, they want to distill want in the item is most important to them.

Qiqqa provides text analysis of PDF content to determine themes.

analysis of text (screenshot via Qiqqa)
analysis of text (screenshot via Qiqqa)

Much of the distillation will involve reading the content, and making notes.  PDF apps allow users to highlight passages, sometimes with different colors to represent different themes.  Users can add notes about the content.  An app called TagNote lets users tag mentions of specific people or things.

annotation tagging (screenshot via X)
annotation tagging (screenshot via Tagnote)

Finally, users want to take what they have done in the PDF and be able to use it elsewhere.  PDF apps provide export functionality, so that users can export highlights, notes, and article metadata. The exported material can then be used in another application.

Comparison with HTML content

Using HTML content is difficult when wanting to survey, distill and apply information. People have largely given up on curating favorite links to HTML content.  At the same time, cloud-based personal repositories have become more popular, which let people store content that can be accessed everywhere.

Using a browser to save links to items of online content has declined in popularity, and link sharing sites like Delicious have been displaced by social media.  Pinterest offers a counter example of active online content curation, though its organizational focus is strongly visual.

Sites such as Quartz and Medium have introduced annotation-based comments, though they are geared for public display rather than personal use.  The chief challenge for HTML content is developing solutions that can integrate items from different content domains.  Most solutions have been browser-based.  The web service Diigo, aimed at students, offers some of these capabilities.  The Hypothesis platform allows people to make annotations, hosted on a server, that may be either private or public.  Hypothesis is also developing text analysis capabilities.  The hurdle for browser-based solutions is that they depend on the security and architecture of the browser, which can vary.  Bookmarklets are starting to fall out of favor, and extensions will differ by browser type.

At least right now, server-hosted curation and annotation tools don’t emphasize functionality that let people export their content. Readers can’t manage snippets of content using their own tools; they are dependent on hosted services to allow them to integrate information from different sources. This limits their ability to create their own context for the information.

Current browser-dependent options for HTML content are fussy, and wide use of annotation is slowed by the pace of developments in standards and browsers. One reason that PDF apps can offer the capabilities they do is that the content is simple and well understood.  There is no Javascript, browser compatibility, or security issues to worry about.

Things we can Learn

What can content strategy learn from PDFs?  That some people want to interact with words, and HTML content doesn’t offer them good options to do that.

PDF usage suggests that some audiences want control over their content.  It reveals a blindspot in the intelligent content approach: the assumption that publishers can reliably predict the specific needs of audiences.  Publishers should not just disburse information to audiences, but support tools that let audiences do things with information.   For complex topics, publishers need to accept that they alone won’t provide all the information that audiences will consider to arrive at a decision or understanding.

These insights are not meant to suggest that all audiences want to download content, or that people who download PDFs want all their content in the PDF format.  In the majority of cases people want to touch content once only: to view it online once, never to return to it.  But for multi-session decisions such as buying a home, choosing a university, planning a vacation, or financing a loan, people appreciate having the ability to gather and compare information, distill important aspects of it, and apply those findings to decisions on their own terms.

Intelligent content approaches premised on dynamic personalization can be myopically transactional, focused on a single online session only. People aren’t going to find “the right content at the right time” always: they need to evolve their understanding of a topic.  Content strategy needs to consider the content experience as a multi-session exploration, which may not follow a predictable “buyers journey” that some content marketers imagine.  The brand doesn’t control what content means; the audience does.

The evolution of content experience is far from over, despite the proclamations that the future of content has arrived.  Smart, flexible, modular content is powerful. But on the topics that matter most, people want to choose what’s important to them, and not have that decision made for them.

—Michael Andrews

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