How PDFs Could Sabotage Your Responsive Website

You’ve got a brand new, responsive web site, and you’re ready to start adding content. You could end up rendering it NON-responsive by adding PDFs.

There’s a place for PDFs. They make excellent downloadable items (ebooks and white papers) for desktop computers. For mobile, not so much. While there are plenty of mobile PDF readers, and most modern phones can handle them, PDFs aren’t really designed for mobile.

Responsive PDFs - iframe1. PDFs Are Not Responsive

Each PDF is a final layout, and is not designed to flow with device screen size. PDF stands for “Portable Document Format”, and portability means a document looks the same (fonts, margins, page breaks) on all devices that support it. At best, you can zoom in/out, scroll left/right, but the PDF standard does not support actual responsivity. PDF text doesn’t flow; everything stays in proportion to everything else – that’s all. The exception is e-reader devices like the Nook that break the normal standard of PDFs and present them as flowing content. Even my new Kindle Paperwhite (which I still prefer) doesn’t do that.

PDF Download Links Don’t Fix Things

For mobile, the best way to present a PDF is either not to (convert it to a web page) or as a download link. With a link, the phone’s PDF viewer app takes over. That assumes the phone has a PDF viewer app; it might not. Downloading one from the app store is easy, but that barrier is likely to frustrate your visitors, or simply cause them to postpone indefinitely. So again, for mobile, PDF may not be the way to go.

IFRAMES Won’t Make Your PDFs Responsive

You can certainly embed a PDF in a page, but that doesn’t solve the problem.With a little code-tweaking, the actual frame through which we’re looking at a PDF can be responsive, but the PDF won’t be. In other words, the window will resize with the device screen size or browser size, but it will cut off the content and force the visitor to scroll right to see it, assuming scrollbars have been enabled. Embedding responsively can be great for videos, but not PDFs.

Fine-Tuned Layout Control Isn’t Appropriate

In the era of desktop publishing, when print marketing was the dominant force, cutting edge was laying out your own page. Once you had the look you wanted, you also wanted it to stay that way. That’s because a standard (US) sheet of paper was 8-1/2×11 inches, or 14” long if legal size. Trifold brochures were based on letter size, half sheets were half that, and so on. The thing about paper is it’s not responsive; if you tear the sheet in half, the text doesn’t resize to fill the remainders.

PDF for Marketing5. E-mail Attachments Aren’t Responsive, Either

In the 1990s, a PDF was a great way of preserving and presenting a final layout for sign-off, before it went to the printer. But then it became the standard document format for business e-mail attachments. If you wanted to share a document and make sure the recipient didn’t need your same brand of Word Processing software (Word, Wordperfect, Pages), you saved it as a PDF. It was funny back then: people actually had “Download Adobe Reader” buttons on their websites, to encourage visitors to make use of PDFs. Oh, the days when patience ruled the web – all those faux buttons and knobs!

PDFs Are Antiquated, But We Still Use Them

So, here we are using print-based digital proofs as online documents and, with the cloud, we’re well past version confusion and version control headaches with e-mail attachments. Likewise, we’re not doing so much print marketing anymore. Print still has value, but it’s a new game now, where you have to step out of the letter-size box and create a delightful artifact to stand out. Just ask Pierre Janssen over at Lush Media: his company creates unique branding presentations that push the normal boundaries. Print isn’t dead, but normal just doesn’t work anymore.

We Don’t Want the Same Things from Documents Anymore

We really have come a long way. We no longer wait to be provided with information, as someone else sees fit; we go looking for it. In fact, we insist on information, and we want it to keep up with *us*, not the other way around. The results for how we present written material are impactful:

  • The purpose of document presentation has changed: we want it device portable, not just print-ready.
  • The delivery method of documents has changed: we want the latest version, so we use Dropbox or Google Drive, not attachments. **If you’re still using attachments, it’s costing you productivity.
  • The accessibility of documents has changed: we want it mobile, because we’re no longer tied to our desks.

We’re All Compatible Now

The 1990s concerns over proprietary formats are largely gone. Unlike when the PDF standard became prevalent, so much of what we access is on the Web, where standards rule the day. As long as you have a standards compliant web browser (e.g. Firefox, Chrome, or Safari), you can access most web-based information. Internet Explorer is the outlier, continually bucking web standards in the name of Microsoft’s fading brand hegemony, but even IE more or less delivers most content reliably, if often not in the same way.

What this means is it’s no longer about whether we can read the material, but about when we can read it. We want access to it 24/7, wherever we are, which is always connected. We don’t wait for the 6 o’clock news or the morning paper – we want content on-demand, on any device.

PDFs Are Still Appropriate In Some Cases

While PDFs are not particularly phone friendly, we still use them, and quite cheerfully sometimes – mainly for:

  • Short guides meant to be read on desktops and major tablets
  • Situations where print is still the ultimate outcome (e.g. printable forms)
  • Collaboratively marking up documents offline
  • Reading in transit when connections are spotty

After all, we don’t really want our tax forms changing as we resize our browsers. Or maybe they should. Now THAT would be cutting edge – a responsive government! I’ll still use PDFs for a desktop audience, but only because that audience is outright asking for them. It’s not effective to choose content formats based on convenience for ourselves rather than usefulness to an audience.

Ultimately, whether or not we use PDFs and, more importantly, how we use them, is based on the audience and what they’re doing. We should pay special attention to that in the form of analytics and anecdotal data.

The Takeaway is Be Aware of Your Audience

If your audience is mostly squinting at phones, a PDF is going to be less than delightful. Even with built-in PDF handlers like the iPhone, visitors will have to pinch, zoom, drag, rinse and repeat in order to interact with your document. It’s not ideal. Consider one of these options

  • Marking your PDF links as PDFs
  • Making it clear the content is best viewed on a desktop device
  • Hiding the PDFs from mobile
  • Presenting the material in multiple formats
  • Presenting the content as a web page instead of a PDF
  • Making a “Send to my desktop” link

Digital strategy is all about the audience. To make effective decisions in the digital sphere, engage a digital strategist at MadPipe.

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides creative direction, marketing leadership in marketing, and campaign direction for firms that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, Forbes, and Success Magazine.
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