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Permanent Tourist

A personal website by Mark Howells-Mead

How to share documentation online in a modern way

In the pre-internet days, a company wanting to share information with its shareholders and customers would engage an agency to create a brochure, featuring lots of lovely images and text about what great work was being done. Then everyone got computers in their offices and the same agencies were forced to get the brochure online. Most early company websites in the mid 1990s were little more than a poor attempt by a print agency to reproduce the brochure experience online.

Agencies quickly found a solution to get around the large number of teething troubles in the web. Young web technology meant that beautiful print brochure layouts just couldn’t be achieved using HTML and the basic CSS available at the time, so agencies and their clients turned, frustrated, to the logical alternative: the digital Portable Document Format. (Known to all these days through the acronym “PDF”). A PDF could be easily created using Quark Express – the layout tool of choice – and offered as a download on the company website. Done and dusted.

However, the same problems apply to using PDFs today as have always applied: the file size of a high-quality PDF is often considerable; reading a PDF requires a browser plugin; PDFs don’t adapt themselves to the screen being used by the viewer. Anyone who has tried to read an instruction manual in PDF format on an iPad or iPhone will know just how illegible and awful the experience is.

Back in 2009, I worked within the Crossmedia team at Burson-Marsteller to try and bring the press release methodology into the 21st century. Instead of sending emails out containing PDFs of a press release, we conceived a workflow whereby the press release was created using a content management system – in this case WordPress – and published online. The email would then simply contain a title and summary for the press release, with a link to the online version. That meant that each press release could be simply prepared in the CMS with no recourse to a print designer or agency, proof-read by anyone with access to the draft version, and then published instantly with the click of a button. A simple subscription service could then fire out automated emails to subscribed email addresses to let them know of the new release.

The benefits of this workflow were that the email was very small and legible in a text-only email programme (on many mobile phones of the day), that the press release could easily be bookmarked for future reference, that it would be picked up quickly by search engines, and that readers of the press release could be assessed by a page analytics tool. Critically, the press release could also be found by anyone, not just those who received it by email, and then shared on social media channels.

Seven years later, there are still thousands of companies all over the world who create press releases, case studies and documentation using a layout tool designed for print material: InDesign. Because porting the layout over to a CMS will involve a cost, many agencies and their clients continue to create PDFs and send them via email… or worse, offer them as digital downloads on their websites. (The fact that the cost of transition to a web-based solution is a one-off investment, massively less expensive than creating PDF after PDF through an agency, seems to go unnoticed.)

Although a huge Swiss organisation relaunched a great new website last year, they are still offering web service documentation online in PDF format, instead of putting the content directly on a web page. (I’ll name no names, as I don’t want to criticise the organisation directly.) Their site forces the user to download the PDF, instead of opening it directly in the web browser, thereby forcing the reader to open it in a separate programme. A hugely inefficient process for all concerned, which could so easily be brought into the 21st century.

Whether a company anchored in the business of traditional printed media can make steps away from this traditional process is uncertain. The organisation at hand shows many positive signs of modernity, so I’m sure that the process will be reviewed after the new version of their site has been online for a while.

The only reason I can see for sticking to outdated workflows like this is that the agencies or departments responsible for creating this content are unwilling to change the procedures which have been in place for so many years. Each PDF means work – and often an invoice – for the layout, type setting and media production at the agency. The same content could easily be created by a site editor after a moderately simple training session, then published directly and shared on a multitude of media channels within minutes. Using adaptive design principles also means that the content can be read perfectly well – and quickly – on a wide variety of devices. Technology for brand new solutions like Facebook Instant Articles are also simple to implement, ensuring the widest possible reach for the content. Try getting that with a downloadable PDF.

A crux of the matter is based on an age-old problem, which doesn’t just apply to the web industry. Bringing publishing processes up-to-date and making them efficient saves a lot of money. Publishing via a website with the right solution is much less costly than hanging on to old print-media processes. But streamlining the process will mean that the same business goals can be achieved with much less work, which in turn will mean that some people may lose their jobs. So it’s a toss-up between streamlining costs and cutting out “dead wood” processes, or keeping people in employment. A tricky call for the people in charge, for sure.