Don’t think PDF, think ‘potentially different format’ instead


Portrait of Harry Thompson
By Harry Thompson

02 June 2023

Using documents, such as PDFs, to present content online is fraught with problems. Accessibility, usability and compatibility issues abound. Whilst some of these issues can be addressed, sometimes it’s better to rethink your content approach completely.

The problem with PDFs

Where to start?

The core problem with that most ubiquitous format of document is that it’s a fixed format. It’s unchanging. And that’s great if you’re wanting to print something in hard copy and be sure it’ll look exactly as designed. But hard copies are not what we should have in mind when we’re producing content for the web. Simply put, PDFs aren’t designed for reading on screens.

Meeting the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards is a legal requirement for all public sector websites. All content published after 23 September 2018 must be available in an accessible format. That includes PDFs. The problem is a lot of PDFs don’t meet these standards. And many of the issues are common to all users, not just those with particular accessibility needs.

WCAG states that content should be scalable without loss of usability. PDFs don’t change size to fit your browser or screen. WCAG states that users should be able to navigate, find content, and determine where they are. PDFs are hard to navigate, particularly on mobile. It’s often difficult to orientate yourself within a document, especially if you click an internal link. PDFs also often have compatibility issues with assistive technologies, like screen readers, that help people who have visual impairments.

It is possible to make PDFs more accessible and compatible than they are by default. But this can often be labour intensive and needs to be done every time you create a PDF. And there are always ways we can make content itself more accessible. But even then, a webpage or document that’s technically classified as ‘accessible’ under the WCAG criteria can still provide a poor user experience.

"A document that’s technically classified as ‘accessible’… can still provide a poor user experience."

The problem with documents in general

The issue goes beyond just specifically PDFs. If you’re not providing content in a web-native format (i.e. directly on an HTML page like the one you’re reading), you’re making your users work harder than they should have to.

Universal barriers are the reasons why any of us may struggle accessing or completing a service or task. These barriers may be permanent, for example a visual impairment. But they may also be temporary or situational. Maybe you’ve broken your dominant hand or you’re in a loud, hectic environment.

Time and emotional state are key barriers that come up frequently in user research. People often have competing influences on their time and attention. They need the information or service you’re providing quickly and easily. And in a format that works as well on mobile as on desktop. HTML content will always beat a document when it comes to ease of access.

"If you’re not providing content in a web-native format, you’re making your users work harder than they should have to."

Online content in documents is often written and produced without web in mind. It’s done through word documents or the like. Then uploaded without consideration of how users actually want to access that content. That’s how we end up with ‘document graveyards’. Hours and hours of effort spent producing content that in many cases is read, on average, by no one.

Think about your audience

When thinking about any content (be that a report, a form, a blog, an email, whatever), you should always be thinking about your audience. Who are they? In what context are they accessing this content? What information do they actually need? What do they not need?

If you’re sending a report to one person, there’s nothing necessarily against producing a PDF and sending it to them. But if that report is online, who’s your audience? Is all the information relevant to a wider audience? Would they know to look for the content that’s sitting in that document?

Could you repurpose that content into a different format? Could you pull out the key information or insights? Share them through higher-traffic, topic-relevant channels? Think how likely it is that someone is going to find your document, want to actually download it and then trawl through it.

"Sometimes it’s about completely rethinking how your users actually want to get information."

Make it easy

Making things easy is often hard. But it’s nearly always worth putting in the effort. When it comes to content languishing in lengthy documents, it’s not always obvious how to translate it into web-native content.

You can start by breaking the content down into simple content types. The website we built for the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service demonstrates this. We used simple navigation pages with clear links, linking to either a further navigation page, or a structured, navigable page. A lot of online documents can easily be broken down into these kinds of pages.

Using consistent, modular building blocks like this, you can make life so much easier for everyone. A user can get the specific information they’re after from a longer document, without having to read, scan or Ctrl+F the entire piece.

Sometimes it’s about completely rethinking how your users actually want to get information. Maybe it’s through a chatbot. Maybe it’s through interactive guidance. Maybe it’s through social media. Thorough user research will tell you what your users need. And very rarely will that be a 100-page PDF.

We can help you with this

There’s no quick fix technical solution that will suddenly turn all your documents into accessible, legally-compliant and user-friendly content. It’s actually better to not think about your content as ‘documents’ in the first place. It’s about fundamentally rethinking how to produce and present the content that you currently put in those documents.

And we can help with this rethink. We can collaborate with you to ensure your site is accessible and legally compliant. We can:

  • support with content reviews and audits to identify areas which pose barriers
  • help you design and develop the building blocks needed to provide content in an accessible, web-native format
  • provide training on inclusive and accessible content

Whilst we can do all this to help ensure technical compliance, we need you as true collaborators. Being inclusive by default doesn’t happen by default. You have to commit to good content creation and governance.

Ultimately, it’s about asking difficult questions and really understanding your users. It’s about making sure that every bit of content you put online is as useful and usable as possible.