Mention PDFs (Portable Document Format) to a group of web professionals these days, and you’re guaranteed to get a lively discussion about the benefits and disadvantages of the PDF file.
Ten years ago, things were different.
If you had a print document you wanted to share with your website visitors, a PDF file was a common way to deliver it online.
PDFs offered a quick and relatively inexpensive way for an organization’s web team to convert print documents, like view books and marketing materials, to a format that website visitors could consume.
Your readers didn’t have to purchase expensive PDF applications to view your PDF.
They could view PDFs in their desktop browser or use a free PDF viewing application, like Adobe Reader.
My Experience with PDFs
When I worked on the web services team at Washtenaw Community College from 2008 to 2013, we had hundreds of PDFs on the college website.
Along with other team members, a good amount of my time was spent reviewing PDFs and identifying ways to make them usable and accessible.
I gave a presentation about PDFs at the monthly meeting of the University of Michigan Web Accessibility Working Group.
And I published a post about creating usable and accessible PDFs that was picked up by Adobe and shared in their worldwide users newsletter in 2009.
Over the years, I shared my tips and experience with PDFs with other people in the usability and accessibility field.
Fast forward ten years, things have changed. I’m no longer the proponent of PDFs I once was. Why?
Responsive Design Impacts PDF Usage
With the move toward responsive design—ensuring websites display well on laptops, desktop, and mobile devices—web designers and developers started to question using PDFs on websites.
Many PDFs could only be viewed on tablets and smartphones by pinching and zooming, not an ideal user experience.
In addition, few organizations invested the time and resources to ensure their PDFs were accessible and could be read with assistive technology.
As responsive design became the norm, organizations started the process of converting PDFs to accessible web pages and web forms.
But many started the process without any guidelines.
Right Tool for the Job
Last week I was checking my LinkedIn stream and read a post about dynamic web-based content vs. PDF.
The author commented that for many organizations, providing a PDF is a common production practice, due to time constraints, staff, and skills required.
She asked whether others were training their team to create accessible content from the start.
And she questioned whether anyone had been told to never use a PDF online.
My colleague Jennie Delisi, Accessibility Analyst in the State of Minnesota’s Office of Accessibility, replied back with a comment that had me nodding.
Delisi mentioned that it’s important to to use the right tool for the job.
She offered questions to ask before deciding whether to use a PDF online.
I thought Delisi’s questions would be helpful to my readers, and asked her if I could use them in my blog post. I was glad she agreed!
5 Questions to Ask Before Publishing PDFs
Here are the five questions:
- Does the content need to be portable?
- Does the content need to be consumed offline?
- Is it navigable by assistive technology users in that format?
- Who is your audience?
- Do you have the tools and training you need to make the content accessible and check it for accessibility?
Of the five questions, I feel the last question is the one that organizations need to focus on.
In my own experience over the past 10 years with my clients and my work at the college, the tools, training, and checking for accessible content were the three items that organizations lack.
Education is key. If organizations want to produce accessible content for everyone, they’ll need to invest in tools, training, and accessibility-checking processes.
Whether your web content will be published as a dynamice web page, web form, or PDF, you want to ensure your content is accessible to everyone.
Before deciding to publish a PDF online, answer the five questions about your content.
If you have additional questions you would add to the list, add them in the comments on this post.