7 Ways to Improve the Usability of Your E-Books + Other PDFs

UX is everywhere, even in PDFs.

When sharing a PDF online, it’s important to remember that a percentage of your audience will print it. Yes, PRINT. And the more useful and actionable the PDF, the more likely it will be printed and kept as a reference guide.

Here are 7 ways to improve the usability of your PDFs and ensure they’re truly printer-friendly:

1. Use High Contrast Colors

More than likely, your PDF will be printed in black and white. Meaning, every color will now read as gray:

  • Photos
  • Illustrations, infographics, and graphics
  • Charts and graphs
  • Any visual cue that relies solely on color

The blue, green, and orange segments in your pie chart? Gray, gray, and gray.

To circumvent this, ensure your designer views the PDF in grayscale mode. If any issues are identified, recommend using visual elements that aren’t dependent on subtle or nuanced colors. For example, use high contrast colors, icons, or special typographic treatments instead.

Use captions below (or headings above) photos to ensure important information in the image is still communicated.

2. Minimize Printer Ink

Look for ways to reduce the amount of printer ink your PDF will consume. Your customers will thank you — and be more likely to download future PDFs.

Eliminate background colors or color blocks — even light grays, yellows, etc.

Reduce the number or size of photographs and other ink-intensive graphics.

3. Create a Margin for 3-Hole Punch

Allow for enough margin on the left side of each page so that printouts can be 3-hole punched and placed in a 3-ring binder.

4. Use Page Numbers

When individual pages get separated from a document, page numbers save the day. They also make it easier to refer back to key information (did you see my note on page 8?).

5. Keep the PDF Short

Shorter e-books and guides will be more likely printed (and read) than longer ones. If you have simply too much invaluable content to share, consider breaking up the PDF into multiple chapters / documents.

6. Use Short URLs or Vanity URLs

Once printed, links won’t be clickable any more. Convert long URLs to short URLs (e.g., Bit.ly), or create vanity URLs for your readers to type into an Internet browser.

Most people don’t know what QR codes are — let alone use them — and so I recommend avoiding them.

7. Create a HTML (Web) Version, Too

Some people will try accessing a PDF on their phone, but then give up when they realize it’s completely unreadable. The font size becomes too small for even insects to read.

Until PDFs become mobile-responsive, it’s a good idea to give your users the option to access the same content in a readable, user-friendly way: on a responsive web page.

Did I miss any usability tips for creating printer-friendly PDFs? Tweet me @KristineRemer.

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Author: Kristine Remer

Kristine Remer is an independent UX researcher & strategist in Minneapolis. Connect on Twitter @kristineremer