UIEtips: Part 3 – Breaking Up Large Documents for the Web

Jared Spool

September 29th, 2009

Determining how and when to use a PDF on your web site can be tricky. Originally, a PDF was used as a way to view a document regardless of the viewer’s operating system or software used to create the document. It was a way to make a hard copy of a document more accessible. The intent of a PDF wasn’t to convey web content.

But there are times when a PDF is beneficial to use on your web site. Understanding when it’s appropriate and how the audience uses the PDF will help you decide if placing a PDF on your web site is the right thing to do.

To help us with this task we turn to Ginny Redish, renowned usability and web content expert. In today’s UIEtips, we finish the 3 part series from Ginny on breaking up large documents for the web (read part 1 and part 2 if you missed it last week ). This article is based on a chapter in Ginny’s book Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works. In this excerpt, Ginny examines these key areas:

  • Should you rely on PDF files for your web content?
  • When might a PDF file be appropriate?
  • When is a PDF file not appropriate?
  • How accessibility plays into the use of PDFs.

We found Ginny’s article to be insightful, and I think you will too.

Is writing and organizing web content one of your responsibilities? At this year’s User Interface 14 conference in Boston, MA, Ginny has a full-day workshop on planning and writing for the web. Her session, on November 1, is sure to be a popular one. Besides talking about the key to a great web site, by starting a conversation with the visitor, she’ll cover selecting and organizing your site’s information, and developing a cohesive content strategy for your site.

Do you use PDFs on your site? How do you determine when to use a PDF? Do you offer the same information on the screen and in a PDF? Share your thoughts below.

3 Responses to “UIEtips: Part 3 – Breaking Up Large Documents for the Web”

  1. Pete Williams Says:

    Generally I only use PDFs when I have something the user would want to print out – they’re the best way of preserving your design on paper. So in an e-commerce system I might have a feature which allowed you to print out a PDF order receipt/invoice for your records as many people like to do this.

    I don’t really understand why anybody would use a PDF for anything else. You often see websites with a link to download their PDF brochure for instance – what’s the point in this? Surely that content should already be on your website in a more accessible and findable form presented in a manner more appropriate for the medium at hand.


  2. Tyler Says:


    On almost all of our customers sites I make sure to not only post their menus in HTML but also I include a down-loadable PDF. We’ve found through time that giving their customers a PDF despite HTML inclusion gives them an opportunity to review the menu if the site happens to be down or it’s not cached for one reason or another. Furthermore we’ve received feedback from people stating that having a menu on hand ( double-click from the desktop ) influenced their decision picking one restaurant over another. As simple as it is to pull up the webpage and check the menu, some people appreciate and even more convenient method.

  3. LH Says:

    You often see websites with a link to download their PDF brochure for instance – what’s the point in this?

    Here’s my answer. The POINT is that my customer has brochures in MANY foreign languages. They are a non-profit organization. In order to save on printing, and to make these more accessible for people in foreign countries who have to use an internet cafe, PDF seems the best solution. If these documents were on the website in the 20 or so translated languages, it would be a mess!

Add a Comment