In the olden days of paper books, users would dog-ear pages and scribble notes in the margin. But nowadays, most technical documents are distributed electronically as PDFs. In many cases, such PDFs are not printed (or some may even be print-disabled), so users cannot add their own notes to the printed copy using a pen or a highlighter, and may find themselves digging through (or losing) notes written separately..
PDFs can provide similar mechanisms on-screen, strengthening the bond between the user and the content, improving user satisfaction due to the greater control, providing outlet for frustration, and contributing to documentation quality (when notes are sent to the author).
Adding electronic notes in a PDF document is no less useful than writing notes in page margins in a book. For example, users can highlight a step or add a note containing information that they found especially useful, such as the time it took to complete a step. They can add custom information, such as different values needed when the procedure is performed in a remote office. Perhaps content errors or inconsistencies are identified, and these should be indicated for future use. Users may also simply want to mark specific pages so that they can easily get back to these later. In addition, notes inserted in a PDF file can be searched or retrieved.
It is relatively easy to let users make notes for themselves in your PDFs using the free Adobe Reader, using different approaches:
Commenting-Enabled PDFs (Acrobat/Reader 7 and later)
Any reader with the free Adobe Reader can add comments to a PDF, if the PDF is enabled for commenting in Reader (in Acrobat Professional 7 or later, open the PDF and choose Comments > Enable for Commenting in Adobe Reader). Using Adobe Reader, users can then add electronic versions of "sticky notes", highlight text, mark with drawing tools, attach files or record an audio note, and eventually save the PDF so that all comments are stored in it for future use.
Comments can be located instantly using the Search function. In addition, notes can be sorted, filtered, or exported to a data file (FDF format) for future import. In Acrobat Standard or Professional, comments can also be summarized, printed out in context or together on a separate page, or exported to additional formats.
When the PDF is opened in Reader, a Review & Comment button is displayed in the task bar, providing easy access to all commenting tools and related functions and settings.
When enabling the PDF for commenting in Reader, some functions normally available to users of Acrobat -- such as editing document content or inserting/deleting pages -- are blocked. This is not a consideration when PDFs are distributed. In any case, we do not want users to modify content in the PDF file, and may even specifically apply security settings which prevent this.
Using the Typewriter Tool for Notes (Acrobat/Reader 7.0.5 and later)
If you cannot distribute comment-enabled PDFs (for legal or other reasons), consider enabling the Typewriter tool in your PDFs. The original purpose of the Typewriter tool was to let users fill PDF forms which do not have real form fields (for example, scanned forms). However, you can take advantage of this functionality and enable your users to add notes on top of any PDF document, anywhere on the page.
To enable a PDF so that notes can be added with the Typewriter tool in Reader, select Tools > Typewriter > Enable Typewriter tool in Adobe Reader. When you enable the Typewriter tool in Reader, some functions normally available to users of Acrobat are blocked, as is the case with PDFs enabled for commenting. When the PDF is opened in Reader, a document status bar shows up at the top of the screen: "This PDF can be completed using the Typewriter Tool". The Typewriter tool can be selected from the same bar. When using the Typewriter tool, note the following:
Notes do not wrap, but multi-line notes are supported (press Enter to start a new line). If you have a note with a long line and adjust the note rectangle manually, text will be split to multiple lines. The typewritten text can be moved from one location to another in the document, and can be copied and pasted.
Double click an existing note to edit it. When the text is selected, you can increase or decrease the text size and line spacing; the font is fixed as Courier.
Notes added with the Typewriter tool are also displayed in the Comments panel, where they can be used for navigation, sorted or exported (to FDF).
PDFs with Pre-Defined Notes or Marks Fields (distilled with TimeSavers+Form Assistant):
You can create a separate mechanism that becomes part of the page design where users can simply mark pages of interest, or add page notes in a pre-defined area. In both cases, Acrobat 8 or later versions are required to enable Save in Reader. Open the PDF, and choose Advanced > Enable Usage Rights in Adobe Reader. (No need to enable commenting or the Typewriter tool).
Page Marks: With pre-defined Page Marks, users can mark pages of special interest in Reader (and also mark/unmark all pages), and navigate to the next/previous page mark. The insertion of fields and related navigation controls can be automated using advanced techniques or add-ons.
Page Notes: Pre-defined Page Notes can be used to add text notes in specific pages; a pre-defined button can be used to reset all notes. Notes can be displayed in the Acrobat console (from where they can be copied and pasted) or sent by e-mail.
The Find function (Acrobat/Reader) can be used to search text in notes. In addition, navigation buttons can be used to move to the next/previous non-empty note. Notes can be set to be visible on screen (and not print), or as visible/printed.