Are you swapping PDF for Word on your website?

In the last few months several clients have told me they’re removing PDF documents from their websites. Usually, I’d applaud this. Way too much content is locked up in poorly designed PDFs. But they’re swapping PDF for Word because someone told them Word was more accessible.

Word is more accessible than PDF? Really? Where is the evidence that supports this? Where is this advice coming from?

Before you go and swap your PDF content for Word documents, make sure you understand the implications.

Word is not an accessibility supported technology

Australian websites must meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0. And they must use ‘accessibility supported technologies’ to do this.

An ‘accessibility supported’ technology works with assistive technologies (like screen readers), and the accessibility features of operating systems, browsers and plug-ins. The guidelines say:

“This means that the way that the technology is used has been tested for interoperability with users’ assistive technology”.

Testing for interoperability is more than just “I downloaded a screen reader and it worked for me” or “My friend uses JAWS and Word works for her”. It involves testing different types of assistive technology, on different operating systems, across different devices.

Word hasn’t been tested in this way.

So even if you’ve made your document as accessible as possible, and it passes Word’s accessibility checker, it might not be fully accessible. It might not work properly with assistive technologies in some situations.

PDF has some accessibility support

While Word hasn’t been tested for accessibility support, PDF has. Vision Australia ran two testing projects for the Australian Government. The first was an extensive study in 2010 that found some problems with the technology. But the main problem was poor document design. And users weren’t comfortable interacting with PDF files.

A second study in 2013 found the technology had improved, but there were still problems with PDF on mobile devices.

Australian Government policy

Web content should be published as HTML because it is an accessibility supported technology. However, a quick browse of any government website will show a great deal of content published as documents.

It’s not surprising then to see that Australian Government policy doesn’t insist on HTML:

“… agencies should not rely upon any web technology that cannot claim WCAG 2.0 conformance. You need to carefully consider any non HTML format, such as PDF and Microsoft Word, to determine whether it meets the WCAG conformance requirement.”

But the policy doesn’t tell organisations to ditch their PDF content for Word:

“In some cases, PDFs are considered compliant for a desktop environment or audience. However, a compliant HTML alternative should be provided or, at a minimum, a HTML cover page that communicates the document’s purpose, message and key findings.”

So if you’ve converted all your PDFs to Word, you won’t be complying with policy unless you’re also providing an ‘alternative compliant format’:

“The Microsoft Word format does not currently conform to WCAG 2.0. However, accessibility can be improved through the structured mark-up of the content and supported by alternative compliant formats (ideally a compliant HTML alternative). At a minimum, you should provide a HTML cover page that communicates the document’s purpose, message and key findings.”

Improving document accessibility

While documents are not considered as accessible as HTML, you can improve them with good document design. See:

And for some tips on cutting back on documents, see my article Reducing reliance on PDF documents online.


Note: Updated 26 October 2016 to explain ‘testing for interoperability’.