Think reader not writer

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2005 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

Many years ago I went on a technical report writing course; the one thing from it that really stuck in my mind was the mantra ‘think reader not writer’. The lecturer explained that there was only one writer but many readers so it was worth the writer spending time making it easy for the many readers.

I am often reminded of this mantra when I am scanning the web and in particular when I have to view pdf files. Portable Document Format (pdf) files were originally developed to enable a document to be transmitted electronically and then printed, and wherever it was printed it would look the same.

The reality today is that the document is just as likely to be viewed on a screen as it is to be physically printed. The problem is that a printed page format is not ideal for viewing on a screen. If it is a PC screen it can be a problem but if it is the screen of a PDA it can be awful. So the writer, the author of the pdf, has not thought about how the reader is going to view and use the document.

Thinking reader rather than writer I have decided that an example is worth a thousand words; so I have attached some examples that I have come across recently. I apologise to the authors concerned now because I am not criticising them but trying to illustrate the issue.

Firstly there is an instruction booklet on how to use a mobile phone. Opening up the file you will find a printers proof, including guillotine marks and colour checks, of a three fold document. Besides the printer’s clutter the pages are in the wrong order making it difficult for the reader. Thinking on-line reader, the document should be displayed as six separate pages in the correct sequence.

The second example is a booklet of fares. The original printed document is A4 folded lengthwise, so there is a similar problem to the instruction booklet, the first page we see is the back and front cover printed side by side, this is mildly confusing but can be forgiven as the rest of the pages are in the right order. The real problem is that there are twenty pages of fares and no table of content. When this document is printed it is fairly easy to flip through the pages to find the bit you want but page flicking on-line does not work well. The answer would be to use bookmarks but the author has not set the document up that way. There is a second problem and that is that each page is really two pages side-by-side and therefore you may have to scroll left and right as well as up and down. The Adobe Reader has a function called reflow (ctrl+4) that is designed to fix this problem but the document has been set up in such a way that reflow does not function properly.

The final example is a short document on accessibility that includes bookmarks but I suspect the author has never looked at them. Click on the bookmark tab and you will see a bit of a mess. I think it was originally written as a word document and has used heading 1 and heading 8 because they look right. What is even worse, in fact, is that one of the headings is missing from the bookmarks so if you did use them to navigate through the document you would miss some important information.

What I hope these examples show is that pdf authors need to ‘think reader’ more than they do; the best way to do this is to look at the pdf when it first goes up or better still to get someone else to look at it from a reader’s point of view.

So far I have not mentioned readers with a disability because everything in this article is about usability for all; however, if what I have said is true for people without a disability how much more true is it for people with a disability.