The Evil PDF

Gerry McGovern brings up a provocative thought in his February 5th issue of his New Thinking Newsletter. The title can make many a technical communicator sit up and take notice: PDFs are evil, lazy, slothful and sinful!

We’re back to the basic question here: what are you trying to communicate? I think Gerry McGovern has a point when he says the customer already knows about your company and looks for more information about something specific, not a repeat of the company’s message. It would be disappointing to go to the trouble of downloading the document and finding that the majority of the material I printed out did not cover the topic I was researching.

However, you don’t know where that document will end up. Does it get downloaded to be read on the train? Does the document change hands many times? At some point, the connection to your company might disappear. Therefore, there has to be some reference back to the source, at least to give you credit for the work.

One example where the message comes first is ChangeThis. Of course, this is not a typical company. Still, look at those PDFs. You read the message first. All the details about ChangeThis come at the end. On a simply flyer-type PDF (just one page, printed on both sides), the constraints tend to limit the amount of information about the company. You only have two pages to discuss your message, so the company information is most likely reduced to a minimum.

I think the problem stems from moving from the print world to the online world without thinking about the differences between those two worlds. Must you really copy everything exactly? That could be where Gerry McGovern gets those PDFs that make him shudder. Massive graphics or introductions that look great on a stand at a trade show are only an annoyance when printing that same brochure in PDF form on your little black-and-white printer at home or at the office. Ink is expensive, you know! Massive graphics that aren’t so vital also lead to larger PDFs, and this means longer download times. Remember, not everyone has broadband access and incredibly fast download times.

Obviously, the basic message in glossy material for a trade show and in a PDF on your website should be identical so customers do not feel they are missing out on information. This brings up the idea of single sourcing. Could you maintain your message in one spot only, and simply “package” it differently depending on the output – a web page, a glossy brochure, a PDF? Of course you can. There are many ways to do this, all of which are discussed constantly on various discussion lists, such as the Single-Sourcing SIG discussion list at STC. Such a discussion is outside the scope of this post, but I want to make sure you know the option exists.

Some of you might cry out, “We don’t have time.” You can be under time constraints at work, and you simply cannot see any other solution than to take the one PDF and post it to the website. I understand. Been there. Done that. Are you just doing this out of habit and not thinking that there could be a better way to get your message across? That is not so good. Again, I have done that. You can get so busy or stressed that you forget to think about what you are doing. That is where many newsletters or RSS feeds are a great inspiration. They can make you stop and reconsider or reevaluate what you are doing. You might want to party like it’s 1999, but do you have to make PDFs like it’s 1999?

Oh, and don’t get me started on accessible PDFs. That’s a topic for a future post.

You can read Gerry McGovern’s thoughts in his weekly newsletter or RSS feed. I can recommend a subscription. Even though his writing is aimed specifically at Web communication, a good technical communicator should be able to find inspiration for any kind of communication.

Are you trying to master PDFs? Get more inspiration at Planet PDF and PDF Zone where you will find articles, newsletters, and discussion fora.

Making Accessible Tables for Your Website

Have you ever had trouble trying to code accessible tables on your Web site? I could never remember the codes myself. I always needed to have Mike Paciello‘s book, Web Accessibility for People with Disabilities opened up to the pages with all the codes for making accessible tables.

Now Frank Palinkas has made a practical tool for anyone who is trying to learn how to code accessible tables. In the Fast Track Tutorials section, there is a tutorial called Creating Accessible Tabular Data Tables. One nice advantage is that you can simply copy the code from his tutorial and paste it into your HTML editor to prepare the correct code. (Paste it into the code-view.)

If you are brand new to standards and accessibility and wonder what accessible tables are, then Frank’s tutorial is definitely for you. He made the tutorial as a demonstration of web standards and accessibility methods for the proper way of making tables. You see, tables on websites are for data, not layout. I hope most people do realize this, but there are still extra steps that should be taken for making tables that can be read in a screen reader. Try out the tutorial and start coding accessible tables today.

Frank will be presenting at the WritersUA conference in San Diego, California, March 25-28. He promises to be on his standards-and-accessibility soapbox!

(Disclaimer: I was one of the people who helped test Frank’s tutorial. I am promoting it because of my interest in web standards and accessibility.)

Professional organization? What’s in it for me?

Networking. Professional development. Friends.

That’s what you get from a membership in an appropriate professional organization, says Les Potter. I agree. Les talks about the value he got/gets from IABC, which I first learned about in October, when I attended the Region 2 conference run by STC UK. Silvia CambiĆ© from IABC Europe and Middle East was one of the speakers. I regretted not hearing her talk, but it was one of those usual conflicts – two sessions you want to hear being held at the same time, so I tossed a virtual coin. At least I heard her on a panel discussion about the future of technical communication. The conference theme was the business value of technical communicators, and Silvia argued that they should sit “at the table” participating in business strategies. The entire conference was excellent, and filled with discussions along that theme. As a member of STC, I was keen to attend the conference, because it was nice to attend something by “my” organization that was close to home.

Les’ trio was there: networking with my peers, as well as leaders in the STC community; professional development resulting from very rich, inspirational, and information-packed talks that exceeded my expectations of a two-day conference; and friends. Wonderful friends.

Who wouldn’t want all this? Networking, professional development, and, above all, friends tend to have very long lasting effects.

Les says more with less. I am going to love his posts. Where’s the fan club? A big thanks to Allan Jenkins for announcing this blog.