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Time to Stop Locking Content in PDF

| November 13, 2016 | Jason Aiken

What if you spent all kinds of time and money delivering PDF content and nobody reads it?

Organizations spend millions of dollars on content-related technologies. According to InfoTrends research published earlier this year, organizations spend $801k on average, and that number is likely to increase by 7 to 13%, depending on the industry vertical. That number doesn’t factor in all the costs related to managing and delivering content.

For years, PDF has been a de facto delivery format for a great many organizations, especially those seeking to offload printing costs by making PDFs available for online consumption. But what if truly valuable content, such as leading edge industrial sector research or solutions to global crises, is never found or read by its intended audience?

The truth is, critical information and research locked inside PDF files is not reaching its maximum potential audience.

In a 2014 article titled “The solutions to all our problems may be buried in PDFs nobody reads,” Washington Post writer Christopher Ingraham explores a World Bank study conducted during that same year. The study investigated the World Bank’s web traffic and found that almost one third of policy reports the organization delivered as PDF were never downloaded and that almost 87% of reports were never cited. While the reports may have seen distribution via secondary distribution channels such as email and print, these numbers are a concern.

These unfortunate outcomes may echo the repeated usability problems associated with PDF that the Nielsen Norman Group has published in 2001, 2003, and 2010. In short, Nielsen found that PDF files make usability approximately 300% worse compared to HTML pages for online reading. While there are features that can improve the online PDF experience, most PDFs are still produced with minimal consideration to downstream readers.

Several main problems commonly impede online readability for PDF content:

If readers can’t successfully access or interpret your message, knowledge does not transfer and the results can suffer. Business leaders interested in good financial stewardship and optimizing results will consider additional options for delivery, including the delivery of a digital experience.

To illustrate the opportunity enabled by alternative digital experiences, let’s look at two types of content: policies and procedures. Both are similar in that they essentially declare what should be done in a given situation to accomplish a goal.

Due to the regulatory aspect often associated with policies, the information may need to cover a wide range of variables that change based on local regulation or the actors involved with the policy. If written in a linear manner, the policy may explicitly list a set of rules based on various contexts, like geography. Even if one is able to search through the body of linear content and find what they need, precious time is lost and valuable information might be missed altogether, potentially leading to a costly mistake or lost business opportunity.

Let’s explore a banking scenario for a banker helping a customer traveling in a foreign country. The customer needs to make a 401k loan to assist with a real estate purchase. If policy content is enriched with metadata, the banker may leverage a simple search query based on a customer’s country of origin, geographic bank location, and specific product to arrive at the set of policies and legal disclosures which match that specific banking need. The banker is assured they have the valid information, the client gets what they need, and the company can ensure compliance to local rules for operation. Everybody wins.

For procedural content, let’s explore a field services scenario. Let’s say you are a field service technician and you need to take time to read about a new complex assembly which has been added to a line of products matching your area of responsibility. It’s your first time with the new assembly, so you want to read about it from start to finish before you’re out in the field. As you do so, you appreciate having a visual indicator showing how far you’ve come through a specific section in the procedure and how that assembly fits into the larger product as a whole. You may need to bookmark your place, add notes for later reference, and check related documents online as you work through this content the first time. While PDF could support some of those requirements, modern digital experiences can be designed to do it better, all from a web browser leveraging HTML5 content.

After you’ve gone through that initial experience and serviced the new assembly a few times, you generate a sense of familiarity with the procedure and no longer need the entire set of content. Instead, you navigate directly to the specific assembly for the specific product by entering a query. The content is enriched with metadata which helps provide a filtered view. You review the specific steps you need and are assured that you have the very latest content, with recently changed areas highlighted to show that your prior experience now needs to be informed by an additional step or two. This saves you time in the field and ensures you perform the task according to the latest, engineering-approved procedure. Moreover, as you’re servicing the equipment, you need to capture some information while you’re in the field to supplement your report.

These are just two examples where an HTML5 digital experience can provide a higher quality result. How that’s achieved will vary from system to system. Content automation solutions take into account rich user experience requirements and apply principles of manufacturing to deliver that enriched experience at scale.

Opportunities for discoverability, enhanced usability, and analytics abound with HTML5 digital experiences, but PDF still has its place. Since 1991, the format has enjoyed broad use for downloading and printing graphically-rich and emotionally engaging content for later reference. Governments around the world also leverage the archiving and accessibility features to meet their requirements. Those requirements can and often are met by evolving new digital experiences, but PDF will certainly be around for some time to come.

Content strategists must take into account which delivery formats are most appropriate for audiences. Any content automation solution must consider requirements for multiple formats or risk losing an entire audience segment. Exploring multiple delivery options helps ensure the content automation spend is optimized for highest impact and value.

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