A long, long time ago something called a “Portable Document Format” (PDF) was introduced to the world. PDFs took traditional paper documents, and brought them online. People could now attach documents to emails instead of sending them via snail mail.
The year was 1993. Ace of Base was still together and Home Improvement was the second most popular TV show in the US. Needless to say, we’ve come a long way.
Fast forward 24 years (and many band breakups later) and we’re at a completely new junction for how documents are handled. Smart phones and tablets have entered the picture, people have become accustomed to cloud storage, and data is increasingly fluid.
PDFs – once a leader in online paperwork – have shown their age and their limitations.
Lest we settle for a “PDFs are good enough” attitude, let’s remind ourselves of the very real problems with PDFs.
1. Your Data is Trapped
One of the biggest frustrations with PDFs is that information is kept static, immobilized, trapped, locked – pick your adjective – in the PDF file. You can’t copy and paste information easily. You can’t update details quickly. You’re unable to pull data from a PDF and funnel it into a database.
The list goes on and on.
The result is that even a simple transfer of data from a PDF requires manual intervention. This usually comes in the form of tedious data entry by an individual or team.
Yet despite the fact that repetitive activities like data entry cost companies massive amounts of time and resources, PDFs still mandate the extra work.
There are better ways (we’ll get to those at the end of the post).
2. UX on Mobile Is Subpar
“Subpar” is actually quite generous here. Most mobile experiences with PDFs are downright terrible. You have to pinch the screen to zoom, drag to read, and then unzoom to find your spot in the document again. Then it’s rinse and repeat until you get through the entire thing.
Experiences like that aren’t only frustrating, they deter people from carefully looking over a PDF document or completing the required document flow when on their mobile device. No doubt about it, PDFs present a poor way to complete a document transaction on the go.
This might be all fine and good except when you take into account that “nearly two-thirds of Americans are now smartphone owners, and for many these devices are a key entry point to the online world.” (Source)
It’s no wonder why companies have low completion rates for important documents that directly affect their business!
Here’s a screenshot of the PDF experience on mobile in case you need reminding:
3. Content is Uneditable
Imagine this: you spot a typo in a PDF that needs correcting. You go to click it and you realize – of course – it’s locked into the text. Your typo lives on to taunt you until you go back to the original file to update the document. Once saved, the new PDF needs to be re-sent to the right people. But right as you’re about to click “Send” you spot another typo. The cycle repeats.
We’ve all been there.
It feels eerily similar to finding an error in a printed document and having to go back to a Word file to fix it before re-printing. Both instances require a lot of work to make a small fix. Both types of “editing” are also unnecessary in this day and age.
4. PDFs Must Be Downloaded
Something special happened when Google released the Google Drive suite. All of a sudden, the most up-to-date versions of a document or spreadsheet could be shared at a moment’s notice using Google Docs or Google Sheets. This prevented the need to send Word files when sharing information. Different people could access information instantaneously. All they needed was a simple URL.
It was a magical introduction to real-time collaboration.
Yet PDFs still require you to download a file before sharing it with others. Once sent, the recipient is often required to download the file on their end.
All those delightful benefits listed above – the ones about instantaneous sharing and real-time collaboration – are moot when it comes to PDFs.
5. Version Control for PDFs Causes Night Sweats
We can’t actually verify PDF version control causes “night sweats,” but we’d definitely wager a guess that at least one person has lost sleep trying to locate and share the correct version of a PDF.
Version control becomes particularly frustrating when you need to disperse accurate documents amongst teams. Protocol would require that each person delete old versions before swapping in the new PDF versions.
You can guess how that usually goes. Spoiler: not well.
Alternatives to PDFs
New ways to handle documents and form information have developed (and fast at that), bringing companies the option to seamlessly collect, store, and disperse information into documents, all the while retaining their legality and legitimacy.
We’re not talking about small improvements to PDFs either. We’re talking about completely new ways to handle information in documents.
HelloWorks is one example.
HelloWorks removes the PDF from the user experience entirely, showing only relevant fields to the individual filling out a document.
Data that’s entered into the fields flows directly into a company’s database to be safely stored. It provides a far better experience for anyone filling out a document, and to those collecting information.
But don’t worry – we understand PDFs are still instruments for sending and storing data. With HelloWorks, even though the user never interacts with a PDF, their inputted data gets auto-filled into a PDF to be sent, stored, or transferred as needed. The difference is that any important data is first funneled into a database, so you never have to worry about unlocking it from the PDF down the line.
It’s really the best of both worlds!
You can also check out examples of workflows that can be simplified using HelloWorks:
It Was Nice Knowing You, PDFs
PDFs have had their time and place. You could argue they’ve even had their era! But information that stays locked in a document isn’t the future of our increasingly mobile world. Businesses are gunning for better ways to manage their data. Staying stuck on PDFs only detracts from this goal.