Bad PDF Files Ruin Your Message

This seems to be the week of reports I really want to understand and read, but just can't.

First, Mother's Day Report Card: The Best and Worst Countries to Be a Mother 2008(PDF), and 2007(PDF).

Second, the 2008 Healthcare Equality Index – Full Report (PDF), a report on how hospitals treat homosexual couples.

Each report is unreadable for a variety of reasons. The same reasons that often afflict PDF files when the person producing them doesn't stop to think that real people read them, not just analysts and designers!

My odyssey in frustration started with the 2007 Mother's Day Report. I couldn't start with the 2008 Mother's Day Report because even though the stories ran in the press on Sunday, Save the Children didn't post the report on Sunday, or have it scheduled to go.

The Mother's Day Report has some pretty horrifying statistics. Statistics like five countries where a mother's lifetime maternal mortality risk (risk she will die giving birth) is greater than one in ten. (Something to think about the next time someone tosses off a line about how women have been giving birth for millennia without hospitals and doctors.)

However, I read things like this at home on a laptop. A laptop with a screen that maxes at 1024x728. I knew it wasn't a good sign when I opened the file and saw this at the bottom,

"To copy this table onto 81⁄2 x 11" paper, set your photocopier reduction to 85%"

The only reason I can think of for that note is that they tried reducing the PDF to that size on their own... and discovered that when they did so the font size 7 or 8 text couldn't shrink any more. I've been using Acrobat Professional for at least six years, and I don't know off the top of my head how to shrink by 15% anyway, just "fit to page."

I was then presented with the impossible-- a table that is longer than normal paper (certainly won't fit on my screen), in a small font, and gray text on gray. To make things even better, the table is neither zebra-striped (and I challenge the woman who did the zebra-striping study to put this table to people's use, because the one she presented was, way too easy to use) nor does it repeat headers.

In Excel (and Google Spreadsheet) you can freeze the top pane so that when you scroll up and down the document, the headers stay in place.

If you need that ability, but can't create it in your flat document, try adding repeating headers every screen load.

If you don't allow people to see the data and the label at the same time, you've basically told them you don't care if they read the data or not, it's just there to look pretty!

My experience with this particular file went something like this:

  1. zoom in to 150% to be able to read the headers.

  2. put my finger on the column I was interested in.

  3. scroll the page down under my finger

  4. scroll left without thinking so I can tell what line to stop on

  5. swear out loud because I just lost my down column (my husband can attest to this)

  6. scroll back up to the top

  7. put my finger on the column I wanted

  8. zoom out until I can see it and the left column

  9. scroll down with my finger in place until I get to the country I want

  10. zoom in to read it

  11. think about looking up something else on the table

  12. give up

This year Save the Children appears to have given up. Here's a grab of the whole PDF:

Hmmm. It's legible... but it completely fails to say why they think these places are good or bad, or to put the differences in them in context. In fact, it's everything about
How to Lie With Statistics except a pretty graph.
So, instead of making a file that could be seen online (what, heaven forbid they put up a plain html version?), Save the Chidren gave up this year and just dumped all the data out as useless instead.
All in all, these issues make the hospital PDF problems seem almost trivial.This is a screen capture of the last page of the report. I just want to know why they went with empty cells of color coding. Someone who is color-blind is not going to be able to tell a darn thing. I didn't check the file for 508 compliance, but I have a feeling anything that completely ignores the color-blind users is not going to have help for Jaws users.
I can see that with the color scheme they went with icons would be very, very busy... but if you have to remove all information clarity to fit the design, it's time to relook at the design's purpose.
Moreover, they hid the guide at the bottom of the pages. I didn't realize there WAS a key to how the charts were filled out until I zoomed out for a screen grab! I did look for it... by scrolling up, not down. If your table means nothing without a key, it shouldn't be hidden as a footnote! Why isn't the key at the top of the chart?

I think the reasoning behind this horrible table probably went something like this, "we branded the whole report in yellow and blue (no rainbows here! take us seriously!), so.. um.. here's a yellow and blue table. We deleted the checks and question marks and x's because.. well... it was busy. No one needs those anyway, right?"


If you're designing something to go online, don't assume it's going to be printed on a press! Assume it's going to be read on a crap computer that is out of date and on a small screen that shows poor resolution. Maybe then you won't create something that just angers your users.
I didn't give up on these files, frankly, because I was writing this post in my head. Any normal user would have long ago.

If the user gives up on reading the message, they never get the message.

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