Jakob Nielsen is wrong and dangerous
Next week in London Jakob Nielsen will be a keynote speaker at the main conference for Online Information. His idea of usability seems to be to limit technology to what people already know about. He has often suggested that PDF should only be used for documents intended to be printed. This opinion has not changed over the years when the growth of PDF on the web would seem to suggest that many people are now familar with the Reader.
The Online Information event is attended by broadly two groups of people. Information professionals and librarians are often interested in the actual content. Gradually there has been a larger audience of people concerned with technology as such. There is now a part of the exhibition described as 'Content Management Europe' with specialised sections on Documents and Records and also e-Publishing.
The Content Management area is broadly the range of functions targeted by Adobe and the new server software promoted as the 'Intelligent Document Platform'. It appears that Adobe have not taken a stand but they work with EMC Documentum who will be represented. In the technology area, PDF is almost certain to be seen as one of the options, alongside XML with claims that the two are compatible.
At least Jakob Nielsen is prepared to engage in dialogue. On a previous visit to London he took part in extensive discussion as part of a Guardian Talk special. There was not much change in his opinion however. At Planet PDF they have despaired of convincing him and their rejection of his views is closely argued and totally convincing as far as I can tell. See 'Jakob Nielsen's PDF Phobia is seemingly incurable by Kurt Foss , Planet PDF Editor, in July 28, 2003. The only constructive attempt to relate to Jakob Nielsen is to show how Google can be set up to avoid PDF altogether.
There has been some comment on Forms, the leading aspect of the new phase of Adobe software. "Forms are the wrong metaphor for workflow support. It's much better to view data entry as an Internet-based application (or intranet-based application, as the case may be) and design a true user interface -- one that takes advantage of all of the GUI elements, conditional workflow structures, and user assistance techniques that have evolved through decades of interaction design for applications." This from an Alertbox in July last year. PDF forms can have most design features of any web page. Maybe Flex and Flash appeal to a certain aesthetic uniquely but there is not much in current web pages that cannot be done in PDF. There may be design and training issues that need discussing. If there is mention of PDF, maybe some detail on forms would be useful.
I think it unfortunate that Jakob Nielsen is influential. His ideas on Flash is not much more helpful than on PDF. Maybe the explanation of his position is that the result is very conservative. Any new technology can be sesisted on the grounds that users need to get some new understanding. One result in the UK is that the New Opportunities Fund paid for a lot of scanning of archive material, very little of which is available as PDF for public download. This is one of the few functions for which Jakob Nielsen would suggest PDF as being suitable.
At a recent Adobe webcast Ivan Koon stated that there will probably be an ISO standard for PDF archiving sometime next year. This will be similar to the PDF-X series for pre-press. There is interest in this, so it may come as a shock to people who rely on Jakob Nielsen as a source on how much time to spend looking at PDF.
I may be quite wrong to go on so long about this. There may be nothing said at Online Information about PDF, or Jakob Nielsen may have eventually found something positive to say. (There are reports for sale in PDF format from the Nielsen Norman website. Unusually the PDF icon leads to an ordering page, not a PDF file, quite a surprise for people raised on web conventions) I think whatever he has to say by the end of the show PDF will be reasonably established. Last year the British Library launched a document service based on PDF. So far as I know this is still on offer. On Thursday there will be some free talks on e-publishing. There appears to be interest in XML but PDF will probably be in there somewhere.