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Humans have put their thoughts to media with the idea of capturing these in time – that is, creating documents – for many millennia.
Needless to say, readers’ expectations have changed constantly and continually through the ages. These expectations have changed for many reasons, and the reasons have themselves changed over time. Here I’ll capture but a few key audience expectations at particular moments in document history:
Cave paintings are arguably the first documents, these pictures show that one does not need written language to put thought to media – a point that is altogether too easy to forget. If the purpose of documents is to communicate ideas clearly, then it’s doubtful these have served their purpose through time; there are many competing theories on what idea(s) these paintings were meant to communicate. Many scholars believe that the ideas captured in these paintings were likely urgent and clear to their audience at the time they were inscribed, but they also remind us that what is clear to one audience may very well become inscrutable to later audiences.
Early Mesopotamian receipts show that even 7500 years ago, businesspeople had the need to maintain receipts for expenses and records of ownership transfer (let’s hope they didn’t have to deal with expense reports also). These clay balls are thought to be envelopes describing the communicated contents within, and together are believed to make up a document detailing the sale of coal. Business needs have driven document technology not just recently, and not just this past millennium, but for many thousands of years. Even in 5500 BCE, there was the concept of transferable ownership of goods and a desire to document these transfers.
Almost 600 years ago, Gutenberg’s printing press disrupted the dominant paradigm of information transfer in 15th century Europe – that of maintaining control and knowledge of the written word concentrated within a small educated elite. Until this time, the control of information in documented form was carefully controlled through controlling access to the knowledge of reading. Many kings and clergy feared (and rightfully so!) that if information could flow quickly through the democratization of ability to publish printed documents, then control of their subjects would be eroded. Their fears were justified; the printing press facilitated new organizations, ruling parties, greater access to knowledge and information, and the drastically easier ability to document one’s own thoughts, opinions and ideas.
In the last thirty or so years of the 20th century, desktop publishing and computer-printed documents brought the ability to perform sophisticated visual layout to a broad audience. Thanks to Gutenberg, audiences had been primed for centuries to expect text, but in the PC era, people expected documents to become more visual and graphical. These expectations presaged the creation of multimedia and rich-media documents: first on storage media such as CD-ROMs, now accessed through apps and URLs.
Smartphones, tablets and eBook readers have brought new meaning and expectations to the visual presentation of documents. No longer are documents expected to always appear the same everywhere, at every time. Audiences have new expectations about the accessibility of information in documents, tailored to their environment, while communicating information reliably and repeatably.
Today, advancements in the internet, software, and speaking devices – along with growing expectations that more information is easily accessible to more and more people, machines and workflows – are breaking the expectation of documents as purely visual items with only human readers.
Document accessibility for all readers, including those without vision because of physical limitation or just temporary circumstances, is increasingly an expectation among general audiences. The ability of applications and software to ingest and use electronic documents is growing, along with user expectations that software can be fed documents with information. Structured content with semantic meaning is used to facilitate understanding of document contents by machine data processing and text-to-speech applications alike.
Tagged PDF brings these capabilities to PDF authors, to meet the expectations of a new generation of document consumers. With audience and expectations evolving, structured content is seen less as a cost to be borne and more as a competitive advantage and a way to differentiate your documents in a positive manner, to demonstrate that you can present information to as wide an audience as possible.
What does it mean to meet the expectations of a new generation of document consumers – without sacrificing the strengths of precisely laid-out visual content for archiving, for referencing specific contents, or for portability? Stay tuned for part 2 to find out!