Boston Broadside
September/October 2003
Vol. 61,  No. 1
 Newsletter of the Boston Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication


Copyright © STC Boston 2003

Competitions 2003-2004

PDF Files and the STC Competitions

By Denise Dennett

A quote from last year's competition:

"My company delivers documentation as PDF files; they no longer print hard copy. So I printed out the PDF files, went to Staples, and got them bound as inexpensively as possible there. I wrote a note in the entry form explaining this, but I still got comments from the judges about the poor quality of the binding. Our 3 books all won Merit awards, but I know they would have done better if the production issues had not lowered our scores."

Recently, the STC Boston/NNE Technical Publications Competitions Committee has been discussing whether or not we should change how we evaluate PDF entries. For the past several years, entrants could enter a PDF document into the Online Communications or Technical Publications competitions. The entrant would choose which competition to enter based on how the end user was expected to use the document. PDF files entered into the online competition were judged using the online communication criteria; PDF files entered in the Technical Publications competition were judged using the guidelines for printed entries.

PDF documents, though, are a hybrid. PDF files need to be optimized for print so that the end user can print out either the entire document or individual pages. But they may also be read online, if only to find the pages the user wants to print, so the PDF file needs some online functionality. The Technical Publications competition required three printed copies, and the judges never saw the PDF files online. Any online functionality was lost. If the document was printed in black and white, all color features that made the online version usable became hindrances in the printed version.

Recently, I sent a survey to the STC-INFO mailing list. Before the Technical Publications Competition Committee determines how we should judge PDF files, we wanted the opinions of the Technical Communications community.

Survey Results

I received 52 responses, and would like to share a compiled summary of the survey. Not all of the responders answered all of the questions, some gave several answers to individual questions, and most of the answers were free form. This was not a scientific survey, but a tool to solicit opinions and information from our peers.

All of the responders indicated that their company delivers documentation as PDF files. These companies ranged from huge multinational corporations to year old startups. The majority of responders had been delivering PDF files between three and five years (22 responses), and a few had just started. One brave pioneer has worked with PDF documentation for 10 years.

Why use PDF

Cost was the most popular reason to deliver PDF documentation (24 responses); second was the ability to provide timely, frequent, and easy updates (9 responses).

Additional reasons cited were ease of distribution (8 responses) and customer preferred or requested (5 responses). One responder required the security of password-protected PDFs to prevent file edits. Responses also pointed to single sourcing as an objective.

Some companies duplicated all of their documents in PDF and hard copy (3 responses); others deliver all of their documentation only in PDF (12 responses); and most companies had a mix of methods, heavily weighted toward PDF delivery.

The types of documents that are still being printed included:

  • Installation Guides (11 responses)
  • User Guides (6 responses)
  • Quick Reference/Quick Start Guides (5 responses)
  • Read this First/Release Notes (5 responses)
  • Administration Guides (5 responses)

Customer Feedback

The following questions asked why responders deliver PDF documentation, and what choices they make to support PDF over hard copy formats.

The survey included a question about what type of feedback the responders received from their customers. "Positive" and "none/no complaints/unknown" were the largest responses, both with 15. Other feedback with one or two responses included: like both PDF and hard copy, don't like restrictions, prefer print, like ability to print more than one. It appears that customer acceptance of PDF documentation is split right down the middle.

When asked if they redesigned any part of their documentation to support PDF delivery, 27 responded that they did not. Others answered they included symmetrical pagination, additional bookmarks and links for items not generated automatically, and added navigation options. A few indicated they had all H1and H2 headings start at top of page; had their entire system redesigned; provided additional print-friendly version; or removed all interactivity to optimize for print.

What assumptions were used about how users would print the PDF? Most answered that no assumptions were made, or that users would have access to a black and while laser printer. Many indicated users would print selectively, 3 responders said users would print the entire book.

PDF Entries in STC Competitions

The survey then asked if the responder had entered a PDF file in the STC Competitions. Most did not answer, while six entered the printed version of the doc, and four had never entered either a PDF file or a hard copy document. No one indicated that they had ever entered a PDF file, although as the Coordinator, I know that we have received PDF files as entries before, and some have won awards.

Reasons why people had not entered seemed to be general and not specific to PDF files. The responses will help all competition committees better facilitate entries. Publications usually were not entered because people did not think they had a chance of winning, or that their products weren't good enough, and the competition was too tough. People were also too busy with deadlines during the entry period.

Judging Criteria

When asked, most (24 responses) thought PDF files should not have different judging criteria for the Technical Publications competition, though many commented there should be criteria for readability/navigation (13 responses). Although the competitions committee agrees that readability and navigation improve the usability of PDFs, we have no way to judge these facets because we require printed documents.

Based on the results of this survey and our lengthy discussions on the subject, we have decided that we, the Technical Publications Committee, will not introduce PDF-specific judging criteria this year.

Value of STC Competitions

The STC Competitions provides more value that just awards. Three trained judges who return comments back to the entrant evaluate each entry. These comments point to what is done right, and usually provide suggestions for improvement. People who think their work is not competition ready just might be surprised at how good their documents really are. Last year, two of the three Best of Show winners were first-time entrants. Winners of distinguished awards vary from companies with huge departments and resources to lone writers.

Please consider entering this year's STC Competitions. We expect to start registering entries in early August.

Denise Dennett is a Contract Technical Writer, currently at Terason, a Division of Teratech in Burlington, MA. Denise is also the STC Boston/NNE Chapters Coordinator for the Technical Publications Competition. She can be reached at .

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