Studying the structure of disordered and partially ordered materials is notoriously difficult. Recently, significant advances have been made using the atomic pair distribution function (PDF) analysis of powder diffraction data coupled with the use of advanced X-ray and neutron sources and fast computers. Here we summarize some of the more spectacular successes of this technique in studying the structure of complex materials and compounds. Our purpose is to make the PDF analysis technique familiar to the chemical community by describing its methodologies and highlighting its potential in solving structural characterization problems that are intractable by any other technique available to this community e.g. single crystal diffraction, Rietveld refinement of powder diffraction data and extended X-ray absorption fine structure analysis (EXAFS).