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3 Ways to Escape the PDF Graveyard

By Guest Writer on September 11, 2015


Applying technology solutions to the challenges of international development requires organizational change more than new gadgets. That’s why we were thrilled to launch our new Organizational Guide to ICT4D at the NetHope Fall 2014 Summit in Silicon Valley.

The Organizational Guide to ICT4D has been developed in partnership with NetHope, CRS, Microsoft, and HC3, with content shaped by the Principles for Digital Development, and design considerations by the PATH Toolkit for Public Health Managers. Our hope for the guide, which is under consideration for publication under a Creative Commons License, is that the nature and delivery of the publication will be as influential as the content itself.

But what decisions were made to create the new guide?

Lesson 1: Embrace Digital-First Media

Even though mobile-first design has been embraced for online presence, print-first design still reigns supreme for publications in international development. This is partially because the government has been driving industry adoption, but also because PDFs 1) deliver an exact representation of the original document, 2) provide a consistent user experience across platforms and printers, 3) are freely accessible, and 4) can be distributed to low-bandwidth environments.

But that doesn’t mean that you have to design a PDF primarily for offline use. Once you free your publication from the constraints of paper, you can more freely adopt richer colors free from printing requirements, additional external information via hyperlinks, regular updating for rapid iteration, and of course — clickable navigation to easily browse the document.

Lesson 2: Design for Social Distribution

But just because your PDF exists in a digital format, doesn’t mean it will actually be read. According to a May 2014 internal study by the World Bank (available in PDF), nearly one third of reports have never been downloaded. And of those downloaded, how many would you expect to be read in full by their target audience?

The nature of text-heavy, long reports discourages sharing what could be hailed as mission-critical information. But visual information alternatives can be easier to understand and share, especially when used with interactive aids to jump around the content. If you were traveling to a new city and brought a guide book, would you want dense text or an easily navigable companion?

Lesson 3: Help Others Re-purpose Your Content

We were fortunate in designing this guide to do so in partnership with organizations committed to NetHope’s mission to act as a catalyst for collaboration for applying common technologies. As such, we wanted the document to be a space to share experiences and thoughts, not a one-way declaration of expertise. By including photos and quotes, we hoped to not just include voices from the field, but to provide a personal relevance and connection on technical content.

But what would we do if we weren’t updating fast enough, or covering in enough depth important topics to our community? How could they take what we had done and make it relevant to their daily tasks? Fortunately, with a Creative Commons licensing approach, we want to signal that the purpose of this document is to be shared, critiqued, dissected, re-purposed, and reassembled.

Christopher Neu is the Chief Operations Officer at TechChange and this post was originally published as The End of Boring PDFs? Three Lessons in Creating the New Organizational Guide to ICT4D

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One Comment to “3 Ways to Escape the PDF Graveyard”

  1. Mike Dawson says:

    Definitely licensing is important: that lets other people adapt the content as they need to (both format wise and content wise) assuming you use a Creative Commons license that is “free culture” e.g. allows for modification and commercial usage. But on the format and process issues mentioned here: the most important information to avoid “PDF graveyard” has actually been entirely missed. Rather than hope that someone fixes that on your behalf here are ways to actually solve the issues with PDFs:

    1. If you want the user to be able to use the content offline AND take advantage of responsive design and mobile first principles the answer is EPUB. That’s the format used by project Gutenberg, library.archive.org, WorldReader and others. It can be read offline on almost any device and is an open format ( see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EPUB ).

    It can include text, graphics, interactive content, video, and audio that can be responsive to different screen sizes. Because technically EPUB is HTML web content inside a zip file: one file can be both the downloadable version for offline use and the basis of the web content. You can even readily convert an EPUB to PDF (but not the other way around).

    2. No matter what software you use to make your content: keep the originals (word documents, photoshop files, captivate, etc). What actually happens is people make the PDF and loose the source document. PDF is difficult to convert to more mobile friendly formats (like EPUB) because it has precise text and graphic positioning information instead of the text flow itself.

    3. Thinking about the content and the audience can be done entirely independently of the file format; if a PDF is interesting people will read, download, and share it. The fact that many PDFs were not downloaded is certainly not the fault of the PDF.