'Creature from the Black Lagoon'

Government use of PDF files doesn't sit well with its own guidelines

Spokespeople for the Chief Electoral Office are attempting to minimise the significance of the alleged glitch in the reproduction of overseas special voting forms using the .PDF (Adobe Acrobat) format.

According to agency spokesperson Anna Hughes, only one person was “seriously inconvenienced”. A small additional number were initially flummoxed but they obtained prompt assistance from the office’s helpdesk, she says. They were advised to upgrade their version of the Acrobat reader.

However specialists in web and computer usability disapprove of the proliferation of PDF files online, saying an alternative format such as plain HTML should always be provided. If anything, PDF should be the alternative, and the main document should be provided in another format.

“Content intended for anything other than a specialist audience must be provided primarily in HTML 4.01,” the New Zealand government’s web guidelines advise. “Where another format is provided it must be clear to all users that this is provided for the benefit of a specialist audience and may require special software to make use of it.”

The one function for which the guidelines advise use of PDFs for the printing of forms. However, the unpleasant experience of a few voters, who could not clearly see the part of the form to register a Green Party vote, seems to show that the format can be unsatisfactory even for this purpose.

The advice to inconvenienced voters that they should upgrade their version of Acrobat also appears in conflict with government guidelines, which advise web designers to “use the earliest compatible version of the format, unless there is good reason to provide a later one.”

“PDF lives in its own environment with different commands and menus,” says usability expert Jakob Nielsen. “Even simple things like printing or saving documents are difficult because standard browser commands don’t work.

“You have to wait for the special reader to start before you can see the content. Also, PDF files often take a longer time to download because they tend to be stuffed with more fluff than plain web pages.

“Because the PDF file is not a web page it doesn’t show your standard navigation bars,” says Nielsen. “Typically, users can’t even find a simple way to return to [the] site’s homepage.”

Nielsen calls PDFs “the Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “unfit for human consumption.”

The man responsible for counting the nation’s votes, Chief Electoral Officer David Henry, was, perhaps understandably, rather busy late last week and did not immediately return Computerworld’s calls.

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