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Why PDFs are an out-of-dated communication fail

What were you doing in 1993? Sir Alex Ferguson was winning the inaugural Premier League as manager of Manchester United. Gary Barlow and Take That were having their first No 1 single in the UK. John Major was being the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, 1993 was also the year that a company called Adobe was unveiling a means of delivering information known as the portable document format, or PDF. Twenty-seven years ago! That makes the PDF more than a quarter of a century old.

The world has moved on massively in that time, especially in communication and technological terms – and yet the PDF is still being widely used.

The fact that PDF use endures would be fine if there were no limitations or drawbacks and if there were no alternatives. After all, we still use knives and forks when we eat, because they remain the best way of eating.

But there ARE limitations and drawbacks with PDFs and there ARE alternatives that address those limitations and drawbacks.

First, let’s deal with the main drawbacks.

These are…

  • The fixed layout of a PDF means that documents designed on and for laptops (most documents) will be extremely difficult to use on a mobile device, usually requiring pinching with fingers to zoom in and pan around.
  • PDFs have to be downloaded before viewing. Downloading files is not something mobile device users do regularly, if at all.


Both of these drawbacks are barriers to communicating with people on their terms. And it is important always to communicate with people on their terms (employing language they understand and a means of communication that they are able to use and use easily), otherwise, you risk them not getting the message that you want them to get.

In short, don’t talk Greek to pig farmers in isolated Guatemalan villages and don’t give someone a message in a locked box and then swallow the key.

So, what is the answer?

One way is to send the information in the body of an email. This is absolutely fine for plain letters, but not when you want something to look professional or to be engaging.

There are very many occasions when you will want to add images or present information with an element of layout and design (the best example being a weekly newsletter). You can sign up to systems that allow you to design and deliver newsletters that are engaging and can be viewed easily across all devices. But these systems often cost money, and they also fail to address one of the other major issues with PDFs.

That issue is that people make mistakes and things change.

When you are sending 1,000 people information in a PDF, then you are sending that information 1,000 different times. But that information might prove to be incorrect, it might change or it might contain an embarrassing and unprofessional error. In these circumstances, you have to make the correction and send 1,000 copies of the information out again, which is a faff for you and can make you look bad.

If the information is only in a single place in the first place – on a page on your website – then you can make the correction once. If the information on the website has changed or if there is a factual error, then you can send a quick email explaining this and pointing people to the amended details. If there is a spelling error or embarrassing mistake, then you can change it and pretend it never happened.

An amusing example of this problem (amusing for childish people like me, at least) was an email sent to me by my local curry house during the first lockdown last spring. The message should have read: “Because of the closure of restaurants, people have assumed we are shut – but we are still doing takeaways.” However, the incorrect vowel was used in the word ‘shut’, changing the meaning of the sentence from “people have assumed we are closed” to “people have assumed we are extremely bad”.

Had the restaurant put this message up on its website and sent an email to customers saying “we are open in lockdown – click here to find out more”, then they could have changed the message when the howler became apparent and most people would have been none the wiser.

Instead, the embarrassing mistake was shared widely on social media and ultimately appeared in the local paper. It was an epic communication fail – and I would now be boycotting the place on principle were its prawn dhansak not so great.

It should be clear by now that the solution we are advocating is using your website to deliver information rather than lazily attaching a PDF.

It means the information can be presented in an engaging and professional way. It means that people will be more likely to look at the information across all devices. It means that information can be easily corrected in the event of details changing or mix-ups with vowels can be surreptitiously amended to spare collective blushes.



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