Gateway pages for PDFs

Jennifer Hamrick
Thursday 10 September 2020

The Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) recently published a compelling article on why PDFs should be avoided at all costs on the web: Avoid PDF for On-Screen Reading.

The article includes a lengthy list of reasons not to use PDFs online as well as some of the reasons they still remain so prevalent. The main message is that PDFs should only be used to distribute documents that users will print – nothing else.

However, one interesting idea from the NNG was to use gateway pages for PDFs which must be available online. Gateway pages are HTML pages that summarise the key messages from a PDF with the option to download the full PDF.

Advantages of using a gateway page:

  • Allows the user to quickly comprehend the important parts of a policy, handbook or other important documents without having to read a lengthy PDF.
  • Avoids ‘PDF shock’. Usability suffers when users are abruptly dumped into a PDF file from search engines. Gateway pages allow users to first interact with the content in a familiar digital format.
  • Provides information about the PDF (such as page count and file size) to help users make an informed decision about whether they want to download it.
  • If all links are directed to the gateway page (rather than the PDF), it will avoid links going to old versions of the PDF as the gateway page will always be up to date.

See the NNG article on creating gateway pages.

Incorporating gateway pages on the St Andrews site

How easily could we create gateway pages for the PDFs on the St Andrews site? Unfortunately, it would be no small task as we have hundreds (if not thousands) of documents circulated online.

First, we would need to audit all of the existing PDFs on our web pages. The audit would help us decide which PDFs are still relevant (not out of date or older versions), and which need to be distributed as PDFs in the first place. If users are not expecting to download and print the document, the PDF should probably be converted to a user-friendly HTML web page instead.

Once we have identified which PDFs still need to be kept online, we should get the analytics for the number of views or clicks each PDF has. This will help us prioritise which PDFs to focus on and create gateway pages for first.

Ideally, we would create a handful of high-priority gateway pages and run user testing to confirm that the gateway format works for our users and to iterate on the design. From there, we could continue to create gateway pages for existing PDFs while making sure any new PDFs uploaded to the site had an accompanying gateway page.

This would be a large project requiring many web team members as well as stakeholders throughout the University. However, as accessibility is strategically important to the University (not to mention legally important too!), we need to tackle PDFs in some way, and creating gateway pages would be a good place to start.

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