7 June 2012
Councils have far too many PDFs on their websites. It’s time to scale them back, make those that remain easier to use, and to plan for a future where PDFs are entirely unnecessary.
PDFs cause serious usability problems for many users. If your website contains large numbers of PDFs it’s really got two very different kinds of “pages” – HTML web pages and PDFs. Each of these works very differently. As with all usability problems, the pain is felt particularly acutely by less experienced users – the very people that councils should be making an extra effort to help use the internet confidently and effectively.
There is no consistent way that PDFs are handled by a web browser – it just depends on how the browser and the user’s computer is configured. When a user clicks a link for a PDF on a desktop browser, one of several things might happen:
The user might also unexpectedly get a focus-stealing software update message from a viewer app like Adobe Reader – something which will also annoy and confuse some users.
In most cases the back button won’t work (i.e. pressing Back in the browser, if you can find it, won’t get you back to where you were). Many inexperienced users find it difficult to navigate between tabs, windows and applications. PDFs make it impossible to guarantee that all the action stays within the user’s current browser tab. Break the back button and you take away many users’ primary navigation tool.
PDFs also cause problems with search engines. Depending on how you’re serving your PDFs, they might not be indexed in search engines at all. (One council I checked only had five PDFs indexed by Google. The real number on the site is far higher.)
Even if your PDFs are indexed by search engines, this often causes other problems. Someone clicking through to that PDF from a search engine results page is taken straight to the PDF (downloaded, opened in a new tab/application, or whatever). They’re not visiting your website. They don’t see your branding or navigation. They don’t see the context in which the PDF is linked within its parent web page. And very often PDFs remain on your website, still indexed by search engines, long after their parent pages have disappeared. You’re serving up out-of-date, context-free information that’s very likely to be misleading.
PDF handling on smartphones and other mobile devices is also haphazard. Assuming the user can view the file at all, it could be very difficult to read and navigate on a small screen.
PDFs can also cause problems for more experienced users when they’re implemented badly, which they often are. Typical issues are:
PDFs should only be used when they’re the most appropriate document type. Often it’s just a lazy way to get something online that’s been written in a word processor.
Councils should publish and enforce internal standards for PDF use, making it clear when PDFs are appropriate and when they’re not. And when PDFs are used, they need to pass quality standards.
All other PDFs should be converted to standard HTML web pages and the PDFs deleted from your servers. Make sure that your website should uses a print stylesheet so that pages print cleanly at sensible size and without extraneous headers, footers and sidebars.
Over time, your criteria for acceptable PDF documents should get shorter and the number of PDFs on your servers should get fewer.
Adrian Short works to get people the information they need, when they need it, in a way that they can understand.