PDFs – just say no!

Lewis Wake
Thursday 28 September 2023

PDFs have become ubiquitous in the digital world, making it easy to share documents in a fixed format.

They are simple to create from a quick export option from a word processor, which is great for those who want to quickly create a shareable document digitally.

However, this widespread use does not mean that they are the ideal choice for sharing content online. It’s 2023. There are a lot of issues with relying on PDFs for content, no matter its level of importance.

Let’s explore the numerous issues surrounding PDFs, particularly when used on websites.

Difficult to view on mobile devices

In an increasingly mobile world, a significant amount of web traffic comes from smartphone users, and PDFs are notoriously difficult to read on mobile phones.

They do not adapt to different screen sizes and resolutions, forcing users to zoom in and out and scroll horizontally to read the content, resulting in a frustrating user experience.

In contrast, HTML content is responsive and adapts to various screen sizes, offering a far more user-friendly experience on mobile devices.

Forced downloads and large file sizes

Another downside of PDFs is that they often force a bloated download on users.

People visiting a website typically seek information quickly and effortlessly. PDFs can be large files, causing slow downloads and consuming valuable bandwidth and storage space on all devices.

This scenario is particularly troublesome for users with slow internet connections or limited storage capacity.

Challenges in updating content

Updating content in PDFs is a cumbersome process compared to updating a web page.

It often requires access to the original file and software used to create the PDF and, even then, the formatting may not always align correctly, necessitating additional time and effort to ensure consistency.

Accessibility issues

PDFs often fall short in terms of accessibility.

While it is possible to make PDFs accessible to screen readers and other assistive technologies, it typically requires additional work to ensure they meet accessibility standards such as WCAG 2.1 AA.

This extra work can be avoided by using accessible web formats from the start.

The allure of PDFs

Despite these significant drawbacks, many continue to produce and use PDFs.

This preference could be due to the fixed format of PDFs, which ensures that documents look the same regardless of the device or software used to view them.

PDFs are also often used for documents intended for printing.

When should a PDF be used?

To adhere to accessibility requirements and ensure the best user experience, it is crucial to minimise the use of PDFs for online content.

Before publishing a PDF, consider the following:

  • Is the PDF intended solely for printing?
  • Is the content specific and unique to your organisation?
  • Does the content have a clear intended audience and function?
  • Does the content already exist in a more accessible format?
  • Does the content need to record a particular event or statement?

In cases where a PDF is necessary, ensure that it meets accessibility standards and consider also providing the content in a more accessible, user-friendly format like HTML.

In conclusion, while PDFs have their place in the digital ecosystem, it’s essential to recognise their limitations, particularly regarding online content.

By opting for more accessible and user-friendly formats, organisations can ensure that their content is easily accessible to everyone, regardless of the devices they use, enhancing the overall user experience and meeting legal accessibility standards.

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