Main Street to Silicon Valley: We don’t even understand PDFs


In the tech blogosphere, chatter abounds about the latest collaboration tools, cutting-edge tech ideas and the future of gadgets for getting work done. But back on solid ground in cubicles, conference rooms and coworking spaces across the land, how much tech knowledge is actually filtering down to your average employee?

Sometimes, a survey result comes along to shock those who deal with advanced technology on a daily basis into a more grounded answer to this question. Take a poll recently commissioned by software firm Nitro in conjunction with the release of the latest version of their Pro PDF reader. It found that nearly half (45.7 percent) of a representative sample of Americans are either only somewhat familiar with modest and ubiquitous PDFs (s adbe) or not at all familiar with them.

It’s a number that may surprise many tech pros and also shocked Gina O’Reilly, the COO of Nitro. Though when we spoke with her, she did offer a possible explanation for people’s ignorance of PDFs:

It was really surprising for us here at Nitro. Although it’s not that surprising when you think about how most people actually consume those PDF files.  Anyone who’s browsing the web these days has to have encountered a PDF file, and everyone has a free PDF viewer. Most people have Adobe reader. But what we think is that most people probably just see a PDF viewer as a web browser.

Besides being one of those head scratching, believe-it-or-not facts for the tech savvy, this general ignorance of PDFs might actually offer a wider lesson for managers and IT pros. Namely, don’t assume your team has the basics down. Quickly and accurately manipulating a PDF may seem like a no-brainer to you, but if your employees are creating low-tech work-arounds involving scanners, email or even, gasp!, fax machines for processes you took it for granted they understand, this lack of knowledge could be a real time waster for your team.

“We’ve done some very basic internal trials where we have literally timed people either printing out, signing, faxing, printing out, signing, scanning. The whole thing can take anywhere from 15 minutes to a few days depending on the process,” says O’Reilly.

So what’s the concrete takeaway, according to Nitro? Don’t assume; train. The best collaboration tech in the world won’t help your company in the slightest if people aren’t using it properly, so O’Reilly offers three tips for more effective training:

  • Relevant. Trainingneeds to be very relevant,” according to O’Reilly. “For example, a product like Nitro Pro does a multitude of things, if I’m in the legal department of a company, [then] maybe I’m only interested in redaction and base numbering or whatever, [ao] training should be specific to those areas.”
  • Compelling. She also stressed that, “users really need to see the value.”
  • Internal certifications.  “Something we do internally here that works very well is we introduced sort of phony internal certifications,” says O’Reilly. “We recognize those publicly among all employees, so that also drives some peer pressure. If your colleague has achieved a certain certification and you haven’t, then you might want to do the same.”

Do you think the tech savvy often underestimate the average user’s understanding of even basic products and devices?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Ben+Sam.



Oh and don’t assume they think a PDF reader is a browser! 1. I spend about an hour with a CEO of fairly Internet-using company extolling the virtues of using our browser-based product and at the end I was punched between my eyes with her saying “hmm, and what is that “browser” anyway”? O…M….G, that really gets you down.

Alyson B. Miller

A: A resounding yes!!! In working with tech-savvy and non-tech entrepreneurs we’ve found a HUGE gap. Worse, there is an enormous opportunity being being ignored in that gap: sales of service, chances for collaboration, demonstration of goodwill (answering a cry for help!) – the possibilities are boundless if we can get past the self-limiting assumptions (everyone knows that) and outside the boundary of hanging with our “own kinds.”


Six weeks into teaching an eight week introductory course on MS-Word at our state university, a student came to me and said that most of the commands I’d taught weren’t working on his home computer. I asked him several questions to figure out where the problem was and got an instant answer when I asked him which version of MS-Word he was using. He said, “I don’t have MS-Word on my computer. I have WordPerfect.”

Dana D.

My dentist office in Chicago, which is pretty high tech (they use small cameras on a probe to take photos, not only x-rays, of teeth and gums) is using Windows XP for everything (record keeping, calendar / appointments, billing, and very importantly detailed patient data including notes, x-rays, photos, etc.). The hygienist and the dentist both use this system. It is complicated too (I saw the hygienist using it to click through all sorts of stuff in the UI — it takes *training* and effort to learn this UI, no doubt about it, so why on “god’s” green Earth would they invest in a snazzy fazzy Silicon Valley new system when there are switching costs involved?). Its got to be very compelling. This is the problem with many in Silicon Valley, they live in a bubble and think that the rest of the world really gives two sheeshees.

Bryan Short

HA! My wife still has trouble distinguishing Windows from Word, Excel, etc. She gives me the scrincled face stink eye when she needs to think about these things. Now try explaining to her that the computer desktop is just a GUI for the operating system and she will immediately brush me off as a nerdy talking wizard/charlatan.


Here is something even more shocking: I recently asked my mother if her computer was running Windows XP or Windows 7. Her response: “how can I tell?” And she has been using a Windows PC on a daily basis for only the last 15 years or so.


I think many people are intimidated by technology and just zone out immediately.

Comments are closed.