Selecting the correct format

Does format matter?
Today I received an invite to a party in ".doc" format (i.e. a Microsoft Word document) via email. Whilst I was happy to be invited to the party, and the invite very much served its purpose, I can't help thinking that it could have been presented better. Here're some comments I would make:

  1. ".doc" is a proprietary format, which although popular and therefore supported on most peoples computers, can lead to inconsistent formatting or in the worst case a user not being able to open it at all.
  2. It is also what I would consider to be an "editing format", which means it is fine for producing a document, or passing over to someone else for meddling with, but not (in my opinion) for presenting to a recipient. This is for several reasons:
    1. The possibility of the user accidentally editing the document. Say for example the last thing the sender changes is the date of the party "3/6/2011" - it would be all to easy for me to open the document and then accidentally nudge the zero key, only to turn up to a distinct lack of party on "30/06/11".
    2. Access to details the sender didn't wish to share. Formats such as this provide for a great deal of version history to be saved with the document; so unless specific steps are taken to ensure that this is not included in what I receive, there is every chance that I would be able to view previous versions of it, or comments about its contents.
    3. It does not necessarily open in an easy to view format - either on the wrong page, or at the wrong zoom level, or with certain formatting visible (for example a nice red line under all the spelling mistakes). Microsoft did try to improve on this with the introduction of their "reading view" in Word 2003; however I don't think this really helped and only served to confuse the majority of users.
    4. Because of all the extra information the format contains, often the files are far, far larger than they need to be.
  3. It was sent attached to an email. Email is already a perfectly good format for presenting information, with a variety of different effects available (providing html format is used), so it seems a little unnecessary to attach a file with the information in.

How about an Analogy?

To make the closest analogy possible - if this were an invitation sent by good old-fashioned snail mail, it would be:

  • a handwritten letter;
  • with all the comments and corrections scribbled in the margins;
  • with some spelling and grammatical mistakes highlighted but not corrected;
  • spread over multiple pages - but folded open somewhere in the middle of the document;
  • posted in a large, heavy and cumbersome box which some recipients lack the tools or knowledge to open;
  • that is itself housed within a larger box.

Now that is maybe a worst-case scenario, but not particularly exaggerated in my experience; and whilst you might be a bit surprised to receive that as a party invite, you would be pretty disgusted to receive it as a Masters level degree thesis submission. And even more appalled if it was presented as a final report for a multi-thousand pound project contract! Yet this is exactly the sort of thing the gets done in Word every day. That's not to say a lot of those issues don't crop up in the use of other programs; however Word seems to be the most common object of misuse.

So what's the alternative?
A lot of the fuss I've made above can be avoided through proper use of the Microsoft tools. Provided you remove any hidden data, properly spell check your work and set the display up before you finally save it then things should come out looking ok. You can even protect the document to avoid accidental editing. However, to completely negate these issues, I prefer to use a totally separate "display format" for presenting information.

For anything that is disseminated wider than myself (or my immediate team) I am very keen on the use of common, open standards. The most common of which I have found to be pdf. Most people have a pdf reader installed on their computer, no matter what their operating system. In fact most modern phones can display pdf files. Many programs are able to save to pdf as built in feature and those that can't are invariably able to print to one of the many pdf conversion programs available.

There are also some very neat features of pdf files that are not often exploited, but can be used to produce some very useful effects. e.g. opening by default in full screen mode, embedding other files within them, etc. (perhaps I'll cover this at a later date)

By far my most important reason for trying to use pdf format for dissemination though is that it is a format that is difficult to edit (granted editors do exist, but 'accidental editing' is almost impossible) . This means that if I send a file to someone, and they choose to send it to someone else, I can be fairly confident that the final recipient will see what I want them to see (and nothing else!).

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