Why I Started DocFly

By Author thumbnail image Emily Shaw | on

It all started in 2014, when I was trying to extract text from a PDF file. The file contained some interesting research that I was trying to summarize for a colleague.

The software I was using didn’t allow me to copy the text from the file properly, and I couldn’t find a decent PDF to Word converter either. After spending a lot of time on Google and trying various paid and unpaid software products, I came to a stunning realization: most PDF software is terrible! As a web developer, I found it incredible that users were still struggling to edit and convert PDF files almost 25 years after the technology was invented!

After many hours of research, I realized that most users were looking for very specific features such as a PDF editor, a PDF creator or a PDF to Microsoft Word converter. Furthermore, most of the products catering to these needs were typically large desktop applications. The desktop applications I tested had many downsides. They were expensive (at least $50), difficult to use and suffered from many bugs. Unlike most other areas in software, there were very few online PDF services. This was my “aha!” moment, and led to the development of the DocFly product.

Building the PDF Creator

My first goal was to cater to the need for users to create PDF files. This appeared to be the biggest need that was not being fully met. My second goal was to help users edit existing PDF files, which was another big problem.

After speaking to many friends and family members, I learned that most users didn’t know that the best way to create PDFs was to convert other file types to PDF. So my first task was to create an online PDF converter that would allow anyone to convert a document, spreadsheet, presentation or image into a PDF. My goal was to support a wide variety of file formats, and to make the process as simple as possible. A user simply had to upload a file on their computer to DocFly, which would then return a PDF. Simple enough right?

After testing the solution with a focus group, I quickly realized another problem. Many users wanted to create new PDF files from scratch (as opposed to converting other file formats). This was completely unexpected, and also explained why so many users found PDF software difficult to use. This led to the second phase of development, and I developed an application that allows users to add text, drawings, images, signatures, and watermarks to a new or existing PDF file. Given that most users are familiar with Microsoft Office products such as Word and Excel, my aim was to make the experience as close to Office as possible. DocFly was now one of the few tools that allowed you to convert and create PDF files entirely from your web browser. Pretty cool!

After watching users interact with the product a second time, I could see the early signs of success. The online converter was fast and generated PDFs correctly. The creator tool was easy to use, and felt familiar for anyone accustomed to creating Word documents or PowerPoint presentations. Of course, this was only the first iteration, so by no means were the products fully complete. Some features, such as undoing a previous action, were still missing and required further development (Update from the future: this feature has been added). But considering this was a one-woman effort, I was justifiably proud! It was now time to help users edit their PDF files.


Building the PDF Editor

The next phase of my development project involved editing a PDF file. I quickly realized that this is a very big problem, as PDFs are not designed to be edited! Unlike other file types, a PDF file contains many layers. Each element (such as text or an image) is usually placed on its own layer. This makes in-page editing incredibly difficult. This is also why most PDF software products don’t really work. My solution was to allow a user to add new elements “on top” of a PDF file and then flatten the document. The tool I developed allow a user to display the PDF file in their browser and then erase (or white out), highlight and add text, drawings or images to a PDF file. Once the user saves the file, the new changes on top of the PDF are superimposed on top of the existing PDF. This is much easier that trying to make changes to existing elements inside a PDF.

In addition to in-page editing, I also developed several additional features including the ability to merge PDFs, delete or extract specific pages, add passwords, rotate PDF files and convert PDF to image. Based on user feedback, these were all commonly requested features. All in all, I was convinced that my online PDF editor offered the breadth of features to properly edit most PDF files.


How can DocFly be improved further?

Like any software product, DocFly remains under development. There are always new features to be built, and we are always trying to improve the user experience. 

Recent updates (2023)

In recent times, DocFly has built a web-based form filler and editor that many users find very useful. Filling out government forms is a very common use case for DocFly. Previously, the service also added a PDF to Word converter, another commonly requested feature. The user experience has also been greatly improved by allowing a user to access most tools (e.g. merge pages) from within the main editor itself. 

Author image

Emily Shaw is the founder of DocFly. As a software developer, she built the service from scratch and is responsible for its operations and continued growth. Previously, she studied engineering at the University of Hong Kong and mathematics at the University of Manchester.