5th October 2021

Why PDF is dead (boring)

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By Vanessa O'Brien - CEO and co-founder of OrbViz

PDF and the Internet (for public use) were both born in 1993. They’ve grown up to be equally famous, ubiquitous and a millennial cliché: a smidge convinced of their own importance.

That’s about where the similarities end though because one is a whole lot more useful than the other. Hint: it’s not PDF.

If the two were brothers, the Internet would be the firstborn: a natural leader, cutting his path through a wild, digital world with reckless abandon, confidence and charisma. PDF would be the slightly underwhelming middle child: somehow slipping under the radar and trying to do a bit of everything to keep everyone from noticing.

Sure, PDF has its place. When I need to condense a slide deck to email, for instance, or I want to send non-editable terms and conditions. Perhaps when I’m exporting a high-resolution, print-ready file. PDF is your guy for this stuff, I’ll grant that. What PDF is not good at, however, is just about everything else.

A case in point is reports.

When was the last time you read a PDF report? I mean, really read it, all 250-pages of it, understood it and felt confident that you could share the main points with a colleague off the top of your head?

I’m surmising you are like myself, and the answer is never. I have never done that.

That’s a heck of a confession for a former journalist who used to receive embargoed PDF reports a few hours before release with the expectation that I could understand enough about them to explain them to an audience on deadline. I’m talking about national budgets, health plans, government and corporate annual plans and the like. Now, the only superpower I come a hair’s breadth close to claiming is skim reading, but even so: I can’t be sure that I ever got the story right. Not really. Not truthfully, not honestly.

Why? Because a 250-page PDF report is overwhelming even for someone with a trained eye to spot a story from documents dryer than the California desert. That’s basically the point of it, if I put on my cynical hat.

The trouble is that cynicism doesn’t really fit here, because I talk with governments and corporates on a near daily basis who genuinely seek greater engagement, participation, transparency and trust. Yet they keep asking Joe Public to do the highly implausible task of absorbing mountains of information in PDF: mums and dads, business leaders, workers and consumers who don’t have five spare minutes between them. Thank God for the pretty pictures, but still, PDF is a terrible way to communicate important information to people who need to understand and participate in making positive change in our communities, our businesses, our countries and our world.

The question is, how can we do better, and what does better even look like?

Gartner gives us a clue in its Top 10 Trends in Data and Analytics for 2020 report when it highlights a shift to “in-context data stories.”

What they’re saying is that we’ve got to start communicating information in a way that everyday people can understand. People like you and I. Scrap the fancy analytical graphs, the spider charts, the multi-layer maps and the 10-page profit and loss statements. Like elaborate words, the people they impress the most are the people who use them. Take me for example: this article sure isn’t Tolstoy but at least it will be (hopefully) understood. You can read it in a few minutes, not a few years.

Likewise, we must present data and information in a way that everyone can understand, find what they’re looking for, dive deeper where they want to and engage at the click of a mouse or the tap of a screen. It’s got to be personally relevant and have the context of narrative. It must be quick to captivate considering the human attention span is just 8 seconds - less than that of a goldfish – in today’s digital age.

Bless you, PDF. We've been asking you to do a job that you’re not designed for, and it’s not your fault. But it’s time to move over for the new kid on the block: dynamic data stories. If we can change the way that governments and corporates communicate, we can democratise democracy and help humanity to truly understand and participate in changing our world for good.

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