Last September, I spoke at Technical Communication UK about building HTML documentation from an infrastructure of PDFs as the company I worked at wanted to modernise their documentation. HTML delivers modern sleek documentation from help centre pages, Knowledge Base articles, to blogs. But PDFs still exist in many places — even within the sleek websites — and they are also useful in their own ways.
For over 20 years, PDFs have allowed the publication of long manuals of over 100 pages. The PDFs that I used to create were definitely lengthy, but were also tricky to generate and cumbersome to maintain. Above all, long PDFs are harder to read,
PDFs can Provide Short Targeted Information
As a reader of manuals, I enjoy reading PDFs that present shorter and more targeted information. PDFs let you view information on a software product without the distraction of other navigation information that exists on in HTML help topics. For instance, MadCap software have many PDF guides for brief and key topics. And you can find these PDFs from Google.
PDFs can be Presented for Business Purposes
Your documentation may be very important to your business. Like a contract, the documentation may even need to be printed and presented to an authority or client, and even signed off. In general, online documentation does not provide the same capability. While online solutions are becoming more popular globally in business, in many countries, presenting printed material is the norm. And PDFs may be an essential medium if your content is legally bound.
Appear the Same on All Devices
PDFs have the added benefit of appearing in the same way on a PC, mobile device, or tablet. As a technical author, you do not have to consider responsive design when producing PDFs, as this is taken care of by the site. However, for HTML pages, you may have to consider the device that your readers are using. This is particular true if your documentation is on a standard website that is viewable on a PC, or available as a mobile app.
Seamless Integrate Within a Website
The home of PDF is often within a website/help center itself, amongst the rest of the web pages that have built-in navigation. As long as the information is findable, then it doesn’t always matter whether or not the content is a webpage or a PDF file. Thanks to the sophistication of today’s web technology, PDFs can be stored seamlessly with your help pages.
Printed Documentation as Part of a Package
If your product comes in a physical package, you probably want to be able to pick up and use the manual. The manual is likely to be printed from a PDF file. If your product comes in attractive packaging, your printed manual is likely to have the same attractive design, e.g., a booklet. With the advancement of IoT, artificial intelligence/robotics, we see more and more gadgets with an accompanying manual. The web is just another medium for product documentation.
Which Format do You Choose?
If you can decide a format, it is worth considering all customer and business requirements. Although unsuited for long documentation, PDFs are definitely here to stay. And PDFs can even be used in tandem with HTML formats.