Relying on PDF online? 6 reasons to stop

Many organisations are stuck on PDFs. Systems to help us create and manage information in more flexible formats exist. We’re just not using them. Perhaps we don’t realise why we should. We see the cost of change, but we’re blissfully unaware of the cost of locking up content in PDFs.

Visit any large Australian website and you’ll find a lot of the content is published as PDF documents. Government websites are usually the worst. On some sites, web pages are simply lists of links to PDFs.

We all know why. Content is fast and easy to publish this way. Resources are stretched and staff often under-skilled. And we’re still living in a ‘document-first’ world: content is created as a document and ends up online as one.

Solutions exist, but we’re not using them

For the last couple of years the digital design world has been abuzz with talk of ‘mobile first’, ‘adaptive content’ and ‘responsive design’, yet many of our organisations are still stuck on PDFs. As Nathaniel Manning wrote in The Guardian late last year “We simply digitised the old analogue system, instead of redesigning the way we manage data”.

The systems to help us create and manage information exist. We’re just not using them.  Perhaps we don’t realise why we should. We see the cost of change, but we’re blissfully unaware of the cost of locking up content in PDFs.

The costs of continuing to rely on PDF

Here are 6 reasons for rethinking our reliance on PDF.

1. Data is not ‘open’

While we now have tools to extract information from PDF documents, data contained in them is not machine-readable.  We can’t easily access information embedded in graphics or formatted for presentation.

For more on open data versus PDF, see:

2. Reuse is much harder

Structuring content for reuse means we can create, publish and use content more efficiently.  We can assemble and reassemble it for different products, audiences, devices or contexts of use. Information embedded in documents makes this process difficult, if not impossible.

For more on structured content, see:

3. Findability suffers

Our content audits often reveal untitled PDF documents, while content published within a web publishing system at least has a title generated for it. No title means poor findability because titles are the labels for content in search results, web browser bookmarks and histories and social media link sharing.

Content volume also affects findability. The “we could put that online” mentality runs unchecked when publishing is as easy as ‘save as PDF’ and upload. Websites can turn into massive filing cabinets —making website visitors wade through more links and search results to find what they’re looking for.  Perhaps they never will. The World Bank said recently that over 31% of its reports had never been downloaded.

For more on PDF and findability, see:

4. Measuring content use is limited

When content is stored in PDF documents, we can’t see how people use it. Sure, we can get download statistics, but we don’t know which parts of the document people read, whether they print it, or even if they opened it.

5. User experience suffers

Our usability testing often shows people have more problems with content in PDF documents than web pages.  They click a link and start an unexpected or unwanted download. The download fails, or they bail out when they see how big the file is. People sometimes struggle to navigate a large document with print layouts, huge graphics and no internal bookmarks.  Often the information they want is in a single paragraph. PDFs can make hard work of simple information needs.

For more on PDF and user experience, see:

6. Accessibility suffers

Since 2010, policies from the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Government have warned against using PDF as the only format for web content.  Research by the Australian Government confirmed that PDF created significant barriers for people with disabilities.  Document design was the main cause, but user skills and limitations of assistive technology were also factors.

For more on PDF and accessibility, see: