PDF Prototypes: Mistakenly Disregarded and Underutilized

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Creating a clickable PDF to prototype a new design is not a new concept, but it is a valuable tool that is often overlooked and underutilized. While working over the years with other designers, information architects and usability professionals, I’ve noticed that many of my colleagues believe the same fallacies about the limitations of PDFs. Contrary to popular belief, you can do more than just create links and interactive forms with PDFs; you can also add dynamic elements such as rollovers and drop-down menus, embed audio and video files, validate form data, perform calculations and respond to user actions. PDF prototypes have the ability to replicate most interactive design elements without investing a lot of time and effort.

Debunking common misconceptions about PDFs

Misconception #1: Dynamic elements can NOT be created in a PDF.

Image rollovers and similar dynamic effects can be created in a PDF without even writing a line of code. Although they may not be typically found in a PDF, fore- and background color changes, tooltips, pop-up boxes and other common DHTML scripts can be easily simulated in a PDF. (See an example of a PDF prototype for an eCommerce website.)
Screenshot of eCommerce site pdf.

Misconception #2: PDFs are only good for prototyping page-based applications.

Many people believe that a PDF can not be used to prototype screen-based applications, but this is simply not true. You can easily mimic certain Ajax-like functionality by updating only parts of the PDF instead of an entire page. PDFs also have the ability to hide or show certain form fields and layers based on a user’s actions. (See an example of a PDF prototype for an eCommerce checkout form.)

Note: PDF layers are only supported if the original document was made with InDesign, AutoCAD, or Visio, with the compatibility set to Acrobat 6 (PDF 1.5), and with “Create Acrobat Layers” selected in the export PDF dialog box. The example above is not using layers; only hidden form fields.
Screenshot of eCommerce checkout form pdf.

Misconception #3: PDFs can NOT include multimedia.

Audio and video files (including Flash movies) can be directly embedded into your PDFs for enhanced interactivity. Furthermore, you can select to have these files play automatically in response to specified triggers (such as when the user clicks on the “Product Demo” button). With a little creativity, you can mimic just about any interaction with an interface by taking advantage of this excellent feature. Integrating video clips into PDF usability reports is also an excellent way to report your findings. (See an example of a PDF usability report with integrated video.)

Note: This example PDF prototype requires version 6.0 or later of Acrobat or Adobe Reader to view the media files. Please get the latest version of Acrobat Reader. When you add a movie or sound clip to a PDF document, you choose whether the clip is available in Acrobat 6.0 or later, or in Acrobat 5.0 or earlier. If you select Acrobat 6, the movie clips can be embedded in the actual PDF document.
Screenshot of user testing report pdf.

Remote User Testing with PDF Prototypes

One of the best benefits of a PDF prototype is that it can be tested remotely. Paper prototyping is such a wonderful method, but one of its biggest drawbacks is that you can’t test the prototypes remotely. By using clickable PDFs, we bring our paper prototypes to life and still make it possible to test remotely with users, early in the development cycle. For websites or computer applications, this can be a huge advantage since the user doesn’t have to stretch their imagination by playing with paper; they get to interact with the prototype on a computer by using an Internet browser, the same way they would with the real end product.

All of the benefits of paper prototyping and remote testing is combined when using PDF prototypes. You’re able to collect invaluable feedback from users, in their natural environment, no matter where they are geographically located, without investing a huge amount of time or money in coding or designing your product.

When to Consider Using a PDF Prototype

Using a PDF prototype is a great option when you want to gather quick feedback on a design, early in the development cycle. It’s an optimal prototyping medium if you have minimal coding, Flash or graphic design skills. It’s important to remember that, just like with paper prototyping, a PDF prototype is meant to be low-fidelity. If you want to achieve a much more detailed and functional prototype, than I would highly suggest creating a CSS, DHTML or otherwise coded prototype.

Creating a PDF Prototype

Creating an interactive PDF couldn’t be easier. You will need to install Adobe Acrobat to convert your existing documents into PDFs. If you want to create interactive forms you would need Adobe Acrobat Professional.

There are multiple ways that you can create a PDF. You can start by working from your preferred wireframing program. Once you open up your wireframe file, simply choose to print your document and select the Adobe PDF printer. Once your document is converted, you can begin adding your desired level of interactivity into your PDF prototype using Adobe’s advanced editing tools (choose Tools > Advanced Editing).

Image of advanced editing toolbar.
Advanced editing toolbar.

If you prefer the ease and quickness of hand drawing paper prototypes, you can easily scan your drawings and convert them into interactive PDFs as well. (See example of a hand drawn PDF prototype.)
Screenshot of paper sketch pdf.

Creating Links

Creating a link to another page in your PDF prototype is very easy. Follow the steps below to learn just one of the many ways that this can be done. Links can also be set to open up a file or go to a web page.

  1. Choose Tools > Advanced Editing > Link Tool, or select the Link tool ( Link tool icon ) on the Advanced Editing toolbar.
  2. Drag around the area you want to have a link to create a rectangle. This is the area in which the link is active.
  3. In the Create Link dialog box, choose the settings you want for the link appearance.
  4. To set the link action to link to another page, select Go To A Page View, click Next, set the page number and view magnification you want in the current document or in another document, and then click Set Link.

Creating Image Rollovers

To create a rollover, you will need to have the image(s) you will be using already created and ready to insert into your PDF. Acrobat’s ability to hide or show form elements and the fact that buttons can have alternate appearances, determined by mouse behavior, makes it possible for us to create a rollover. The following steps will guide you through making a button, changing its appearance (essentially turning your button into your imported image file), and adding button actions based on mouse actions.

  1. Using the Button tool ( Button tool icon ), drag across the area where you want the rollover to appear. You have now created a button.
  2. While the Button tool is still selected, double-click the button you just created to open the button dialog box.
  3. In the button dialog box, click the Appearance tab. If needed, deselect Border Color and Fill Color.
  4. Next, click the Options tab and choose Icon Only from the Layout menu.
  5. Choose Push from the Behavior menu, and then choose Rollover from the State list.
  6. Click Choose Icon, and then click Browse. Navigate to the location of the image file you want to use and then click OK to accept the previewed image as a button.
  7. Select the Hand tool and move the pointer across the button. The image field you defined appears as the pointer rolls over the button.

Adding Movie Clips

Follow the steps below to add a movie clip to your PDF prototype. You will need to have the video(s) you will be adding already created and ready to insert into your PDF. Buttons can also be created in your PDF to control playing, stopping and pausing the video clip.

  1. Choose Tools > Advanced Editing > Movie Tool, or select the Movie tool ( Movie tool icon ) from the Advanced Editing toolbar.
  2. Drag or double-click to select the area on the page where you want the movie to appear. The Add Movie dialog box appears.
  3. Within the dialog box, select Acrobat 6 Compatible Media to embed your movie clip directly into the PDF Prototype.
  4. To specify the movie clip, type the path or URL address in the Location box, or click Browse (Windows) or Choose (Mac OS) and double-click the movie file.
  5. Click OK, and then double-click the movie clip with the Hand tool ( Hand tool icon ) to play the movie.

Adding Forms

A PDF form contains interactive form fields that the user can fill in using their computer. A PDF form can collect data from a user and then send that data using email or the web. After the user fills out the form, you can choose to have them print, email or submit their data online to a database.

In order to create interactive forms you will need Adobe Acrobat Professional. The steps below will discuss adding form fields to an already existing document. You can also create a new form by using Adobe Designer. Designer is an application that comes with Adobe Acrobat professional. Designer lets you lay out a form from scratch (static parts in addition to interactive and dynamic form elements) or use a form template.

Forms toolbar
Forms toolbar.

  1. Choose Tools > Advanced Editing > Show Forms Toolbar.
  2. On the Forms toolbar, select the form field type that you want to add to your PDF.
  3. Drag the cross-hair pointer to create a form field of the required size and the Properties dialog box for that form field will appear.
  4. In the dialog box, set the form field’s property options, and then click Close.

You’ll notice a lot of different options in the Properties dialog box depending on which form element you are creating. Form elements can be marked as required to perform client-side error checking in your PDF form. Text fields can be checked for spelling and you can also specify the format of the data entered (such as number, percentage, date, time, etc).

Giving PDFs a Try

The ability to add dynamic elements and multimedia to a PDF makes it a great tool for rapid, low-fidelity prototyping. For me, one of the best perks of using a PDF prototype is that it’s quick and easy to make changes, which is especially useful when I want to tweak a design between rounds of user testing.

A PDF is NOT the perfect prototyping medium for all projects, but I hope that knowing the possibilities of what you can do with a PDF provides you with another tool for your prototyping toolbox.