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To PDF, or not to PDF, that is the question

Ashlee Harris
May 7, 2018 · 5 min read

Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D., a pioneer in the user experience and research field once wrote:

“PDF is great for one thing and one thing only: printing documents… For online reading, however, PDF is the monster from the Black Lagoon.” — PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption

Government agencies publish tons of PDFs for the public to access, so why are they such a problem?

PDFs are often inaccessible

PDFs are not always accessible to those with visual disabilities using a screen reader to access digital information. This is especially true if the PDF is a scanned image. There are many things you must do and test for to make a PDF readable by a screen reader.

Even if a PDF is Section 508-compliant, that doesn’t mean it’s truly accessible to all. Think about the residents who have data plans for their mobile device, and think about how slow and heavy PDFs can be to load. We, at the City of Austin, can be making residents eat into their Internet access in order to see the documents we’ve uploaded.

Out of a 10-page or 100-page document, what is the most important information the resident needs? Did we have to make them download this PDF to access vital information? Which residents are we preventing from accessing our information by putting it in a PDF?

PDFs are often outdated

This has much to do with how difficult these documents are to edit, especially in comparison to a webpage. Many PDFs are uploaded once, and then never edited or archived, which means old or incorrect information can be found by users.

For example, this immunization clinics PDF has incorrect hours.

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Austin Public Health Immunizations clinics PDF, lists that the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday slot for the Far South Clinic reads 8am-11:30pm, which is incorrect

The Far South clinic closes at 11:30 a.m., not 11:30 p.m. If a resident who works late hours saw this and thought, “Great, I can go one day at 9 p.m. when I’m off,” that resident would be disappointed when they call to make an appointment and no one answers the phone because the office is closed.

If this content was listed on a web page, instead of inside a PDF, it would only take seconds to correct. However, to correct the PDF, the document would have to be recreated. The version currently online would have to be removed, then the new version would have to be uploaded. In the time it takes to do that, residents could be seeing this incorrect information.

PDFs aren’t that fun to read on mobile

Reading PDFs on a mobile device can be difficult because of their design, but if these documents are long, that experience is even worse. Think of a resident trying to read a 200-page PDF on their phone. That’s endless scrolling to read your document, and they may even have to pinch and resize to read it.

When do you use a PDF and when do you choose something else?

Austintexas.gov has almost 10,000 PDFs online right now.

Not only that, but consider the sheer number of PDFs government agencies use for various reasons. It begs the question: how can we at the City of Austin begin to provide a better experience for the public outside of the PDF, and when are PDFs appropriate?

In the digital services project, we will be looking into new solutions to provide City staff so that they don’t have to use PDFs.

However, these are the questions staff should ask themselves to determine if a PDF is appropriate or if another approach would best serve residents.

Is it an application, survey, or form with fields that a resident will fill out?

PDFs are not a good solution for applications, surveys, and forms. The user experience requires too much manual work, downloading, and printing for the residents.

There are many other solutions that are much easier, not just for residents, but for staff to manage these incoming submissions. The City of Austin currently has the following services for staff to use to create digital forms.

  • SeamlessDocs

Even if the document needs a signature, these services have solutions for that requirement. Staff should use these to build new forms and transition any old forms onto these digital options.

Is it a document with content that needs to be updated frequently?

If the content will need to be updated frequently, then it definitely needs to be a web page, rather than a PDF. This means you can quickly access the content management system and update the page as often as needed.

Instead of having to find the original PDF document’s file, editing the file, saving it as a new PDF, deleting the old version, and then uploading the new version.

Is it 5 pages or less?

If a document is no more than 5 pages, it is likely that it would be better presented on a webpage. Typically, short documents don’t have any need to be a PDF.

Is it a document that has the sole purpose of being printed?

Some examples would be a poster with trash pick up days for residents to put on their refrigerator or a certificate for a food truck to print and post on their window to show they are permitted to serve food.

If it is a document that is required to be printed, then a PDF is appropriate. If it is not required to be printed, only that it can be, then you should consider a different solution.

Is it a long manual, process, or report?

While PDFs may be a way to display these lengthy type of documents right now, we are looking into how to display that information in more consumable chunks for residents for Alpha.austin.gov.

We’ve begun working on a new content type, the process page. Content that typically would be placed into a multi-page PDF to explain a complex process to residents, will now be in a new content type that makes reading that information online a much better experience. For the process page, we’ve used learning from the permitting site, which members of the digital services team worked on.

Here we have the job application process for a public safety job. It is structured in such a way that a resident can easily determine what they need to do to prepare to apply, be able to apply, and prepare for the process after. They can also learn more about the job and culture. It’s a lot of information, but it’s structured in a simple way.

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Process page to “Apply to be a communications medic,” has headings for overview, before you apply, apply, interview and test

We’re also taking inspiration from sites like mass.gov, which has created a “binder” content type for its long-form documents.

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mass.gov binder content type

While this rules document was originally a 258-page PDF, mass.gov has created a content type to make this information accessible on a web page, no downloading required, and they broke the content up to be much easier to understand. While this may not be the solution for Alpha.austin.gov, it will help guide us to the best choice for our residents.

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