When to use a PDF. When not to.

I was literally just thinking about how I always print PDFs. I was going to say something on Twitter about it, even. And then I opened my new QuickBooks manual, which came in PDF format, and discovered it was 605 pages.

What a PDF does
PDFs (portable document format, originally developed by Adobe) are designed to ensure the recipient sees your document exactly the same way you do — among other things. You can view a Microsoft Word document, save it, and email it to a friend — and even if you are both using PCs and have the same fonts installed, it may appear a little different to them.

And once you move past common system fonts, or cross the PC-Mac divide, all bets are off with original documents. So PDFs make a lot of sense. In addition, you can often convey information much better in a PDF. You can use a sophisticated graphics or layout program, like InDesign or Illustrator, to create graphs and charts that Word, Excel and other common programs can’t create. Then, you make a PDF of your graphics-intensive document, and your readers don’t need to own the original program to view the document — just the free, and commonly used, Adobe Reader.

Design challenges for online reading
Well designed web pages are short, with lots of cues to help you know where to dive in and where to skim — because study after study shows that that’s how we read online. But a well designed PDF often looks and feels like a book.

So when I download a good PDF, I want to read it like a book or manual — holding it in my hands. Marking pages and making notes. That’s the kind of information you commonly get in a PDF — information that requires tactical engagement.

I’m unsure of the value of a 605-page PDF. Actually, I can tell you how much it’s going to cost me. If I print the QuickBooks manual, it will take me 1.08 of my standard HP color cartridges, and 1.25 of my standard black cartridges. $73.19. That’s an awfully expensive manual, no? Instead, apparently I have to keep this 22 MB file sitting around on my computer so I can search it when I need to know something. Because I’m certainly not going to read a 605-page PDF on the computer.

I try to avoid web cliches like this, but this strikes me as an epic fail on QuickBooks’ part.

Consider the format when you’re putting a document together. How will people want to use it? Are you making the information useful?