Editor’s Note: This post has been written by Dr. Tony Self of HyperWrite. Tony will delivering DITA training during October at Cherryleaf’s training centre in London.
UX Magazine recently published an article called How Deceptive Is Your Persuasive Design, by Chris Nodder. The article hasn’t got a lot to do with UX (user experience) design, although Nodder’s book, Evil by Design, certainly does.
The article highlights ways in which eCommerce Web sites deceive customers in order to entice them to buy a product or service, and makes us think about where the dividing line sits between persuasion and deception. Nodder included a little diagram to help illustrate that”evil” design can be identified as design that benefits the designer without any corresponding benefit to the customer. He categorises ”commercial” as being a design that benefits both designer and customer, leaving ”charitable” to describe designs where the benefit is to society as a whole rather than to designer or customer.
This thought-provoking article (and diagram) got me thinking about whether the adherence to page layout design in technical communication for online transmission of information might fit this category of ”evil”.
By page layout design, I really mean PDF documents set out in A4 or Letter sized pages and distributed via a Web site for reading on the Web. Technically, of course, PDFs can be distributed and then read through a browser, but that’s not what PDF was designed for. The PDF format was designed for printing remotely from the author. PDF was not designed for reading online, and is a poor choice for distributing information to be read online. But many authors of content choose PDF over HTML, a format specifically, zealously, wholeheartedly, absolutely and unashamedly designed for distributing information online.
So why do some technical communicators choose PDF for online documents? My theory is that in most cases, it’s for convenience. If I’ve already prepared my document in Word or FrameMaker or PowerPoint or Excel, it takes very little effort to convert that into a PDF. The convenience is entirely for the author, without any consideration for the user. This fits into a slightly modified version of Chris Nodder’s evil designs diagram.
There are other reasons that people choose PDF over HTML. In some cases, it’s cost, where the extra cost and effort of managing a print version and an HTML version of the same content would reduce the budget available for maintaining the quality of the content itself. But in other cases it can be force of habit (“we’ve always produced documents this way”), format-centricism (“our style guide says we have to use these fonts and margins, and HTML doesn’t give us that control”), conservatism (“marketing won’t let us change anything”), or fear of learning (“I’m not a techie Web programmer, so I shouldn’t be coding HTML”).
Documents distributed in HTML provide benefits for both the author (it is easier to create an HTML document than a paged document), and has multiple benefits for the user, including accessibility, consistency, searchability, reflow, and readability. Examples of documents in the”charitable” category might be hard to find, and that’s perhaps a sad indictment on society! But browsing through the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) site, where documents are created and archived for posterity, and to maintain the ethic of transparency and openness (such as these records of correspondence), you can see many examples where the needs of the author and user benefit little, but the very existence of the documents reflects a principal motivation to benefit society as a whole.
What do you think?
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