PATHWAYS — Volume 9, Number 2 – June, 1997

Focus: The Potential of Electronic Document Distribution

If your organization isn't already considering the advantages of electronic document distribution, it's a safe bet that they soon will. You need to be aware of both the advantages and pitfalls of electronic document distribution. You also need to keep in mind that for most organizations, electronic document distribution is not an all or nothing proposition. A wide variety of alternatives exist. Some common ones are:

The alternative that is best for one organization may not be best for another. This issue of Pathways can help you sort out some of the many design and distribution variables.

John Wills, President/CEO


Designing Documents for Electronic Distribution

Creating and distributing documents electronically can often result in significant advantage for organizations. But to realize the potential benefits, careful planning and implementation are required. The decisions you make as you move to electronic document distribution need to address both:

As you will see, these two issues are closely intertwined.

Electronic Document Distribution Considerations

Decisions about how you will distribute documents electronically closely hinge upon your organization's business objectives. Document distribution becomes a critical issue when major organizational changes are contemplated or about to occur. Some common ones are:

In these and similar situations, the organization is likely to face the technological issues of merging disparate operating systems, addressing a mix of computer platforms, and supporting a variety of document/graphics software.

Regardless of the situation, there are a few questions each organization needs to address before adopting electronic documentation distribution:

Electronic Document Design Considerations

Of equal importance to selecting and developing the distribution system are document design issues. That will be the focus of the rest of this article. As the following tables illustrate, the potential benefits of electronic document distribution are not without trade-offs.

Traditional Paper Documents



  • Usually, standards are in place, and are generally understood throughout the organization.
  • Print documents are very portable. You can carry them and read them anywhere.
  • You can read information on one page while referring to a graphic, table, or chart on a facing page or fold-out.
  • Random access to pages is fast and reliable.
  • There is usually a significant time-lag between document manuscript approval and its printing, reproduction, and distribution.
  • There are associated costs for warehousing, shipping, and distributing paper documents, not to mention potential waste from excess inventories.
  • They consume expensive file and storage space.



Electronic and Screen-based Documents



  • Can be stored electronically, eliminating costs for warehousing, shipping, physical distribution, and excess inventory.
  • Computer documentation can be built into the software (embedded). Unlike print documents, embedded documentation is always there; it never "walks off."
  • Are available for viewing anywhere a user has system access¾ from the moment the document is approved for release.
  • Reduce or eliminate the need for file storage space.
  • To access electronic documents, the user must have a system and network connections available.
  • Often within organizations, a mix of platforms and software exists, making design and distribution of electronic documents a technological challenge.
  • Where a variety of printers exist, with different resident fonts, page layout and pagination problems are common.
  • The viewing area and resolution (on-screen readability) of most commonly available computer screens permit viewing of only about 1/3 what one might see on a single page of print.


General Principles for Electronic Document Design

Assuming an electronic distribution method is (or will be) in place, there are certain fundamental issues that need to be agreed upon before document development begins:

Answers to those questions will affect both the document development software you use and the design of the document itself. The next key decision is whether the document you are developing should continue to retain traditional print conventions or be optimized for electronic distribution and viewing. Let's look at each alternative.

Designing Documents for Primarily Electronic Viewing.

Here we are talking about documents which are not intended for print, but only for electronic viewing. Some examples you may be familiar with include:

When designing such documents, it is important to be aware of how they differ from print-based documents. The traditional print page is of fixed size and shape (typically 8"x11" in the U.S. and 210mm x 297mm (A4) in many other countries). Usually it is printed in "portrait" orientation. That is, it is longer than it is wide.

The opposite is true of the typical computer viewing screen; it is wider than it is long. Further, for roughly equivalent legibility, the computer screen can display only about one third that of a paper page and still remain legible.

Documents for on-screen viewing needn't adhere to traditional print page restrictions, but do need to be adapted to the limitations of the computer screen. Here are some things you can do to accommodate the difference:

There are, of course, exceptions to these recommendations. Many sites on the Internet treat their home page as a single, long, scrollable document. This can be an effective design when the content of the "document"--in this case a web site--is subject to frequent (weekly, daily, or even hourly) changes. If you are interested in seeing examples of this design, look at the Los Angeles Times website ( or the Microsoft-NBC site (

Adding Electronic Capabilities to Traditional Print Documents

Even if you are creating documents which will retain traditional print characteristics, but which will be distributed electronically for remote printing, reproduction, and distribution, it is still possible to build in certain hypertext features for those who will be viewing the documents on-screen. Some features you may want to consider adding are:

Assuming your organization's delivery system permits, a document can incorporate any of these features and also be available for local paper printing, reproduction, and distribution.

Concluding Comments

There is no one "best" method for either the design or distribution of documents electronically. What is best for one enterprise may be totally wrong for another. Before adopting a procedure for electronic document distribution, it is critical that organizations explore all their options.

Van O. Wright, Ph.D., Manager, Product Quality Control

Creating and distributing documents electronically can result in significant advantage for organizations. But to realize the benefits, careful planning and implementation are required.




©Copyright 1997 FLI, Incorporated
FLI, Incorporated authorizes you to copy documents published on the FLI, Incorporated World Wide Web site for use within your organization only. When you copy documents, in whole or in part, you agree that any copy you make (printed or electronic) shall contain an attribution of its source and retain all copyright and other proprietary notices contained therein. All other rights reserved.

Volume 9, Number 2 - June 1997 | Volume 9, Number 3 - Sept 1997
Volume 9, Number 4 - Oct 1997 | Volume 10, Number 1 - Feb 1998

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