Are page layout online documents evil?

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. 

Evil by Design book O'Reilly Press

Evil by Design book. O’Reilly Press

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.

Who benefits most? With apologies to Chris Nodder

Who benefits most? With apologies to Chris Nodder

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?

Use the comments box below to share your thoughts.


Paul Goble

The theorist in me started to agree, but then I was reminded of my own preferences as an information consumer. For casual information foraging, HTML often works well. This is the case when I need to answer a quick question about software I’m using, or find out about that new weed I see in my garden. HTML makes content findable and (often) accessible. But for the content that really matters, I find myself converting HTML documents to PDF and not the other way around. Why do I do this?

First, I don’t trust content providers to maintain stable copies of their content. So if I need future access to the content, whether for future study, for sharing with others, or as evidence in a dispute, I need to save it–as a single file.

Second, the important stuff–the scientific papers, the insightful essays, the government regulations–tends to be complex and need careful reading. A layout carefully chosen by the author may help me understand the material. I’m likely to print it out for later study.

The worst of both worlds is when designers force HTML into a format-centric, paged design, as is all too common.

If I’m not atypical, the casual foraging/careful reading and archiving distinction should be a part of any evaluation of delivery formats.

Rebecca Bowes

One could also argue that HTML web-based information is designed for the convenience of the writers/producers–it’s easy to update, often requires less formatting (e.g., no messy indexing), and doesn’t have to be embedded in a release–while a PDF benefits the user because it’s a single file, easy to transport, not subject to the limitations of various browsers, and offers a familiar format that’s easy to navigate and understand.
As always, formats and delivery mechanisms must be based on a user’s real working environment and needs and balanced with realities of software development and the corporate budget.


Several of our users want or need to print our documentation for a variety of reasons – they are senior staff in theri organization and use it as training material for their new/junior staff, or they are using our software and need to have a reference guide to walk them through it and cannot seem to use multiple windows and don’t have multiple monitors. Having come from an organization where we used XML authoring, I loathe having to use the word/pdf model, but it’s what we have and what our users seem to want.

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