Web Usability Blog

Why we hate PDFs

Posted by Lucy Collins on Sep 30, 2020 12:55:21 PM
Lucy Collins

We have recently been head down supporting public sector organisations as they work towards meeting the latest accessibility guidelines.

This has had us crawling over many a government, NHS and local council website and you know what they all have in common: PDFs.

PDFs are rife on these websites and hours spent assessing their accessibility has confirmed our long established opinion that they should be avoided at all costs!

Here’s some of the reasons why…

They are often out of date

PDFs have a habit of being created and then forgotten. They lurk in corners of websites and gather dust, misleading users with out of date information. If you do try to update them, you first have to find the original version of the document, which can often be an impossible task.

They are not mobile friendly

Unlike html web pages, PDFs are not responsive, which means they are horrible to use on mobile devices. The text is small, requiring pinching and zooming and two-way scrolling. Tables are impossible to use, links too small to activate accurately and images and graphics that lose all meaning as users cannot see the detail.

They are very inaccessible

PDFs are inherently inaccessible to users with disabilities and require a lot more work than html web pages to make them accessible, including:

  • Adding document titles so users know what to expect when they open the PDF
  • Using bookmarks and appropriate headings to convey the structure of the PDF and allow screen reader users to skip through to relevant sections
  • Tagging tables so they are interpreted correctly by assistive technology
  • Ensuring images have descriptive alt text

Even with all these adjustments, PDFs can still be difficult for many users and are often avoided…

They have a bad rep

We’re not the only ones who hate PDFs. Users are not big fans either. PDFs are perceived as being hard work, content heavy and generally not worth the effort. On many occasions we have seen testers in usability sessions sigh with resignation or immediately navigate away from a page that forces them into a PDF.

So what is the answer?

Present content as a html webpage, unless PDF is the only possible solution.

If PDFs are retained, take the following steps to ensure they are as usable and accessible as possible…

  1. Ensure text is searchable, never just use a scanned image of text
  2. Give PDFs clear and descriptive titles and headings to help users scan the document for relevant content
  3. Ensure these headings are also appropriately tagged (and give the document bookmarks) so screen reader users can also skip over irrelevant content
  4. Avoid images in PDFs: if used, give them descriptive alternative text
  5. Check the contrast of colours used in the PDF so they pass accessibility requirements

Read more: Common accessibility fails;Web Accessibility: Guidance and the Law

Topics: Accessibility

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