Using Product Documentation as PDFs? Say Goodbye to Your Customers!

Posted by
October 10, 2016

For years, companies have been turning to that old standard – PDF – to publish product documentation. And while technical writers have been arguing, begging and threatening for this to change, old habits die hard.

However, thankfully as far as customers are concerned — and mercifully as far as TechPubs are concerned — a growing number of companies are seeing the light and realizing that, while PDFs still have their place on the communication landscape, product documentation is not one of them.

Below, we highlight the 5 key reasons why companies that refuse to say farewell to PDFs for this purpose are invariably saying goodbye to their profitable customers:

  1. The user experience is dreadful.

The evidence-based user experience research, training and consulting company Nielson Norman Group has concluded that, there is one – and only one – valid reason for companies to use PDFs: it makes life easier for customers to print documents that may be too-large-for-comfort to read on screens.

However, for everything else, PDFs commit a series of unpardonable “usability crimes” including:

  • Documents rarely follow guidelines for web writing as authors wrote for print vs. web.
  • The user experience is jarring since PDFs live in their own environment with various command and menus.
  • Crashes and software compatibility problems are common – and can be too much to bear for less tech-savvy customers.
  • Documents can take too long to download and navigate because they’re often large, and over-loaded with graphics and space-hogging style elements.
  • There are no standard navigation bars or menus for customers to access.
  • Documents are typically optimized for paper – not scrolling – which results in all kinds of rendering issues, including extremely tiny fonts.
  • Documents lack internal navigation, which means customers rarely find the answers they need quickly, easily, or in some cases, at all.

Summarizes Nielson Norman Group’s Principal Jakob Neilson: “Users get lost inside PDF files, which are typically big, linear text blobs that are optimized for print and unpleasant to read and navigate online. PDF is good for printing, but that’s it. Don’t use it for online presentation.”

  1. PDFs aren’t cheap – even if they seem that way.

Many companies that still use PDFs for product documentation point to the fact that they’re cheap.  After all, why invest in a new product documentation distribution system when good ‘ol PDFs are doing the job?

But that’s the problem: PDFs aren’t doing the job. We’ve already highlighted why customers hate PDFs. But CEOs and CFOs shouldn’t be fans either, because contrary to popular belief, PDFs aren’t a cost-effective solution. Since documents are static snapshots, maintaining and updating them is very time consuming, which translates into excessive labor costs. What’s more, the updating process can be riddled with errors and inconsistencies, leading to re-work – and yet more labor costs.

  1. PDFs don’t drive self-support.

A survey by digital marketer Steven Van Belleghem found that 56 percent of customers prefer self-service options when conducting pre-sales research, and 48 percent of customers want self-service options when addressing post-sales issues. And along the same lines, the Aspect Consumer Experience Index found that 65 percent of customers feel good about a company and themselves when they can answer a question or solve a problem on their own.
However, because PDFs are “big, linear text blobs”, customers invariably run into obstacles sooner or later. When (not if) this happens, they have no choice but to open a support ticket or call a support agent – which, according to survey by Nuance Communications is a step that 59 percent of customers find frustrating.

  1. PDFs don’t deliver actionable intelligence.

PDFs fail to deliver what may be more valuable to some companies than revenues: actionable intelligence into how customers are behaving, what they’re thinking and what they want. At most, companies can track the number of downloads, which is about as meaningless as capturing generic website visitor numbers.

  1. PDFs aren’t SEO-friendly.

Research by communications agency Fleishman-Hillard found that 89 percent of consumers turn to Google, Bing and other search engines to get information on products and services prior to making purchases. Unfortunately – and contrary to what many companies believe – PDFs aren’t SEO-friendly.

Yes, as long as the content was created as a text document and not an image, PDFs can be indexed. But the entire PDF will be indexed as a single URL, even though it may contain numerous distinct sections that should be indexed as separate web pages. This ultimately makes content far less discoverable and accessible.

What’s more, customers who do in fact see a search result link that promises to give them the answers they want, must start from the beginning of the PDF vs. being taken to the specific section that interests them. For very small documents this may not be an issue, but for larger documents it’s clearly a problem.

The Bottom Line

As we noted earlier, PDFs still have their place on the communication landscape, and we certainly aren’t calling for their extinction. For example, Penn State has highlighted some valid PDF applications, such as for specific files that are meant to be used as tools (e.g. excel spreadsheets), or for contracts or educational material that must be printed in a specific format (i.e. the documents aren’t meant to be accessed through a browser, but rather printed on paper).

However, when it comes to product documentation, PDFs are clearly part of the problem rather than the solution. They frustrate customers, exasperate technical writers, and rather than being cheap and effective, they’re costly, inefficient and incapable of delivering actionable intelligence. That’s the bad news.

Next Steps

The good news is that if your company uses PDFs for product documentation, then don’t panic: we can help! Zoomin’s comprehensive platform lets you dynamically create, publish and update content across all of your touch points, while you gain content-driven analytics to support customer success, drive sales and increase profitability.

To learn more, contact us today – and say goodbye to PDF “linear text blobs” as product documentation, and hello to getting closer to your customers than ever before.


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