How many times have you gone to a website, clicked on a link to view a file–say, a company’s brochure–and then sat staring at your screen for several seconds waiting for something to happen? Once a day? Once a week? Several times per month? More often than you have fingers and toes?
And how long did it take you to realize that, instead of the file displaying in your browser, it downloaded to your computer? Did you wind up clicking on the document link several times before that realization dawned on you?
Unfortunately, more often than not (and sometimes by reputable companies), we are forced into downloading documents. Sure, web programmers and webmasters can argue that it’s more convenient because it skips the step of making users look at the file and then figure out how to save it to disk for later access. This is bad for two main reasons. First, you’re assuming your file will be valuable to users before they’ve had a chance to determine that. In past user tests that I’ve conducted most people wanted to see the file before they downloaded it. This way they know if they really need to take up space on their hard drive storing your file. Can you honestly say you know what criteria your users have when evaluating whether to immediately download your document? Do you know if your document content even meets those criteria?
Bottom line: Let the user determine if your file is important enough to download by giving them the opportunity to view it in their browser first.
Second, forcing a file download on users can cause anxiety. Some users might have security concerns when downloading files, such as work computers not permitting file downloads, or concern about malicious content included with a download. Also, some users don’t know how to find downloaded files on their computers. This lack of familiarity with one’s own computer is something that cannot be entirely accounted for by programmers or designers, and it is a phenomenon that cuts across Apple and Microsoft platforms. In response to this some browsers have done a lot to make it easier to access downloads. For instance, the newest version of Safari on OS 10.7 uses visual cues to let users know a file is being downloaded and where they can access their downloads. But not all browsers use such cues.
Bottom line: You don’t know what a user can do when it comes to downloading files, so let them see the document in their browser.
Of course, this article stems only from testing I have done. Others out there might have observed something different, with the differences arising from the type of website presenting the downloadable document to the purpose for needing the document. (In fact I have had discussions with people in favor of forcing document downloads on users and they have made some excellent points.) So again, this article is only my $0.02.