The Portable Document Format, or PDF, can be a useful tool. The format gives users another way to access web content. However, PDFs have some limitations you should consider when planning your web content.
Inconsistent User Experience
A good user experience includes seamless transitions and minimizes the number of clicks a user has to make. When you link to a PDF on your webpage, you’re asking your user to make another click. It also takes them out of the context of your webpage.
When a user clicks a link to a PDF, the document that opens lacks the context of the webpage it came from. This lack of structure and navigation can make it difficult for a user to understand how the PDF content relates to the rest of the site. This can be jarring to the user and create an inconsistent experience.
Hard to Read on Mobile
PDFs are hard to read on mobile devices. Unlike NIU websites, PDFs are not responsive. This means they don’t automatically adjust to fit the user’s screen size. This makes PDFs difficult to read on a small screen, requiring lots of scrolling and zooming.
Issues with Accessibility
PDFs aren’t always accessible to people using screen readers. For example, a PDF created from a scan of a document isn’t accessible, because it’s an image. Learn more in this overview of PDF accessibility from WebAim.
You can check the accessibility of PDFs before you link to them. A more effective approach is to make sure that documents are accessible before saving them as PDFs. This includes paying attention to heading usage and table formatting. Learn more about converting source documents to PDFs.
When to Use a PDF
The PDF format is ideal for giving users the ability to download and print documents. You can include a link to a PDF of a document users might want to print out and refer to offline. This might include manuals, handbooks or guidebooks.
Keep in mind that it’s not effective to link to PDFs of brochures. These often have design elements that don’t translate well to the web. Instead, create a webpage with the brochure content to ensure that it’s optimized for online viewing.
When you provide links to PDFs, be sure to include the format in the link. This ensures that users know what type of file to expect when they click a link. For example: Download a copy of the NIU Web Standards (PDF). Be sure to include the content of the PDF on a webpage. This way your content is guaranteed to be accessible to the most users.
To reach the widest audience and provide a good user experience, provide content directly on a webpage. Include the option to download a PDF when appropriate.