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Why are PDFs (mostly) awful and what's the alternative?

Why are PDFs (mostly) awful and what's the alternative?

7 minute read

Why are PDFs (mostly) awful and what's the alternative?

7 minute read

Why are PDFs (mostly) awful and what's the alternative?

Matt Fenwick

Content Strategist, True North Content

If PDFs are as terrible as people say, why is this format still all over the internet? PDFs shuffled on to the scene in late 1990 and ever since then, web accessibility experts have been saying: just stop it.

That got me curious: are PDFs really as awful as all that - and if so, why does this format have such an unshakeable hold?

Part of the answer lies in the way we’re wired. If we want our clients to shift to more accessible formats, we need to grapple with how they think about content: what needs do PDFs meet, and how do we frame the alternative?

Why are PDFs (mostly) awful?


Usability experts Jakob Nielsen and Anna Kaley put it like this:

“Do not use PDFs to present digital content that could and should otherwise be a web page.”

Nielsen and Kaley’s post breaks down the problems with PDFs.  In summary, PDFs are:

  • disliked by users
  • not accessible
  • disconnected from other browsing behaviours


Daniel Craddock goes deeper into the above points, and adds another: PDFs are bad for SEO. Many of the factors that search engines use to rank web pages are either impossible or difficult to do well in PDFs:

  • Structured data (rich snippets and schema markup) to signal what the content is about
  • Fast loading speed
  • Optimised for mobile devices
  • Supporting reciprocal linking

Some PDF proponents have leapt to the format’s defence, including Duff Johnson, who writes that many of the criticisms raised can be addressed by creating PDFs properly:

"The essential problem with this criticism of PDF stems from the inability or unwillingness of the critics to discern between the capabilities of the format versus the manner of its implementation."

To me, though, there is no distinction between the format and how it’s implemented. Each format allows for a set of options, and if those options include not presenting the format with usability and accessibility built-in, that’s a problem with the format.

You could raise the same criticism of html web pages — there are plenty of inaccessible websites. But there are more safeguards built into HTML presentation, including:

  • better optimisation for SEO, which makes them more discoverable
  • conventions for navigation that supports way-finding
  • a more coherent user experience - all HTML pages are part of a website
  • fonts that are optimised for displaying on-screen rather than print
  • typically smaller file sizes for faster load times.

When we look at the way PDFs are implemented, we see that the format shouldn’t be our go-to option for presenting information online.

When are PDFs not awful?

I’m always wary of blanket statements, though.  When I hear that you should never ever use PDFs, I get curious.  What are the situations where using this format does make sense?

I reached out to some UX colleagues for their experiences.

  1. Distributing promotional material
“Providing a source file of an actual print product.” - Daniel Craddock

If you want to distribute posters for people to print and display in their offices, distributing them as PDFs makes sense.

  1. Making forms available
“A form must be printed out, manually filled in and signed and then physically taken or mailed somewhere.”  - Ricky Osnan

Many organisations are still using paper-based forms. For example, where I live, if I want government permission to build on my block, I need to print off a form and send it in.  So the PDF makes it easier to get copies of forms out to people.

This is very much a legacy problem though: systems not being updated to let people transact online.  With products like Typeform, Google Forms and their enterprise-grade equivalents, there’s no reason that we have to use PDFs.

  1. Something that looks official
"Some organisations are 'stuck' with legal requirements where they need 'original, see the ink I used' signatures." - Noel Rodrigeuz
“In research we have done, we've had business users that want to download a formal PDF 'report' to give to a client, such as agents downloading a property flood map report.” -  Tania Lang, Peak XD

Here, the value of the PDF is trust.  A scanned image of a signed page feels more official than a purely digital product. Although PDFs can be edited, users regard them as being more fixed than a simple web page.

Why do we cling to PDFs so very tightly?

The reasons for using PDFs seem so niche.  So why are PDFs the first port of call for publishing anything longer than a blog post?

PDFs are concrete

Imagine printing off a PDF.  Imagine holding it in your hands; highlighting it; or taking it to your manager and passing it to them.

In their book ‘Made to Stick,’ Chip and Dan Heath say that making an idea concrete helps it to take hold.

Even if PDFs only ever live online, they feel potentially physical in a way that web pages don’t. Today, many websites have a solid print-view style sheet. But I still have clients asking me to add a button to ‘make the webpage printable.’  For these people, web content feels locked in an abstract, online environment.

PDFs echo familiar formats

Imagine the PDF you just printed off.  What words would you use to describe it?  Chances are you’ll use formats that began their life offline: article, report, flyer or proposal.

This activates the familiarity bias: we prefer what we already know. You hear the name of the format, and instantly you can imagine something about what it is: its purpose.  Its tone.  Its structure.

Now imagine you’re accessing a webpage.  It’s harder to visualise, isn’t it? This is because web pages are such an amorphous category.  Most of us don’t have a well-stocked mental library of types of web content, beyond blog posts and home pages.

PDFs support pre-digital processes

When you use PDFs, you can shift information from one container to another without changing the way you work.  

Daniel Craddock notes that PDFs first took hold when organisations suddenly had to digitise a whole lot of material they had left sitting in archive boxes.  The website became the new filing cabinet.

It’s less of a digital transformation and more of a digital transposition.

Some organisations are thinking about content as part of digital transformation. They’re seeing content as interconnected and modular, not a set of static and separate products. They’re thinking about content as a business asset. The rise of the headless CMS is contributing to this shift.  But this requires a fundamental change to ways of working, and there will be inertia.

How do we shift this?

If we keep running up against clients holding on to PDFs for dear life, how can we get people thinking ‘digital first’?

Share the metrics

Track downloads of PDFs. Are they actually being used? A report by the World Bank showed that more than 30 percent of PDF reports on their site were never downloaded.

Show the user experience

Test for some of the common PDF problems we’ve identified. We can tell clients that PDFs are bad, but when we show real people struggling, the message will cut through.

Show the risks

PDFs often duplicate information that’s also available online. If both records aren’t kept up-to-date and in sync, there’s a risk of misinformation where there isn’t one source of truth.

If an organisation doesn’t publish accessible PDFs, they risk legal action - and losing the trust of their audience.

Count the cost

If someone we want to reach can’t use a PDF, what are the opportunity costs in lost business, or lost opportunities to connect? What are the operational costs, when people call the contact centre for information that’s buried on page 58 of the PDF?

Start somewhere

Organisations may not have the budget to convert all their PDFs to HTML web content all at once. So pick a place to start: the most commonly-downloaded PDFs, for example. Introduce policies for new content, embedding digital-first, so you’re stopping the influx of PDFs.  Engage clients in defining the new formats.  If you want them to let go of PDFs, give them something else to hold on to.

If PDFs are as terrible as people say, why is this format still all over the internet? PDFs shuffled on to the scene in late 1990 and ever since then, web accessibility experts have been saying: just stop it.

That got me curious: are PDFs really as awful as all that - and if so, why does this format have such an unshakeable hold?

Part of the answer lies in the way we’re wired. If we want our clients to shift to more accessible formats, we need to grapple with how they think about content: what needs do PDFs meet, and how do we frame the alternative?

Why are PDFs (mostly) awful?


Usability experts Jakob Nielsen and Anna Kaley put it like this:

“Do not use PDFs to present digital content that could and should otherwise be a web page.”

Nielsen and Kaley’s post breaks down the problems with PDFs.  In summary, PDFs are:

  • disliked by users
  • not accessible
  • disconnected from other browsing behaviours


Daniel Craddock goes deeper into the above points, and adds another: PDFs are bad for SEO. Many of the factors that search engines use to rank web pages are either impossible or difficult to do well in PDFs:

  • Structured data (rich snippets and schema markup) to signal what the content is about
  • Fast loading speed
  • Optimised for mobile devices
  • Supporting reciprocal linking

Some PDF proponents have leapt to the format’s defence, including Duff Johnson, who writes that many of the criticisms raised can be addressed by creating PDFs properly:

"The essential problem with this criticism of PDF stems from the inability or unwillingness of the critics to discern between the capabilities of the format versus the manner of its implementation."

To me, though, there is no distinction between the format and how it’s implemented. Each format allows for a set of options, and if those options include not presenting the format with usability and accessibility built-in, that’s a problem with the format.

You could raise the same criticism of html web pages — there are plenty of inaccessible websites. But there are more safeguards built into HTML presentation, including:

  • better optimisation for SEO, which makes them more discoverable
  • conventions for navigation that supports way-finding
  • a more coherent user experience - all HTML pages are part of a website
  • fonts that are optimised for displaying on-screen rather than print
  • typically smaller file sizes for faster load times.

When we look at the way PDFs are implemented, we see that the format shouldn’t be our go-to option for presenting information online.

When are PDFs not awful?

I’m always wary of blanket statements, though.  When I hear that you should never ever use PDFs, I get curious.  What are the situations where using this format does make sense?

I reached out to some UX colleagues for their experiences.

  1. Distributing promotional material
“Providing a source file of an actual print product.” - Daniel Craddock

If you want to distribute posters for people to print and display in their offices, distributing them as PDFs makes sense.

  1. Making forms available
“A form must be printed out, manually filled in and signed and then physically taken or mailed somewhere.”  - Ricky Osnan

Many organisations are still using paper-based forms. For example, where I live, if I want government permission to build on my block, I need to print off a form and send it in.  So the PDF makes it easier to get copies of forms out to people.

This is very much a legacy problem though: systems not being updated to let people transact online.  With products like Typeform, Google Forms and their enterprise-grade equivalents, there’s no reason that we have to use PDFs.

  1. Something that looks official
"Some organisations are 'stuck' with legal requirements where they need 'original, see the ink I used' signatures." - Noel Rodrigeuz
“In research we have done, we've had business users that want to download a formal PDF 'report' to give to a client, such as agents downloading a property flood map report.” -  Tania Lang, Peak XD

Here, the value of the PDF is trust.  A scanned image of a signed page feels more official than a purely digital product. Although PDFs can be edited, users regard them as being more fixed than a simple web page.

Why do we cling to PDFs so very tightly?

The reasons for using PDFs seem so niche.  So why are PDFs the first port of call for publishing anything longer than a blog post?

PDFs are concrete

Imagine printing off a PDF.  Imagine holding it in your hands; highlighting it; or taking it to your manager and passing it to them.

In their book ‘Made to Stick,’ Chip and Dan Heath say that making an idea concrete helps it to take hold.

Even if PDFs only ever live online, they feel potentially physical in a way that web pages don’t. Today, many websites have a solid print-view style sheet. But I still have clients asking me to add a button to ‘make the webpage printable.’  For these people, web content feels locked in an abstract, online environment.

PDFs echo familiar formats

Imagine the PDF you just printed off.  What words would you use to describe it?  Chances are you’ll use formats that began their life offline: article, report, flyer or proposal.

This activates the familiarity bias: we prefer what we already know. You hear the name of the format, and instantly you can imagine something about what it is: its purpose.  Its tone.  Its structure.

Now imagine you’re accessing a webpage.  It’s harder to visualise, isn’t it? This is because web pages are such an amorphous category.  Most of us don’t have a well-stocked mental library of types of web content, beyond blog posts and home pages.

PDFs support pre-digital processes

When you use PDFs, you can shift information from one container to another without changing the way you work.  

Daniel Craddock notes that PDFs first took hold when organisations suddenly had to digitise a whole lot of material they had left sitting in archive boxes.  The website became the new filing cabinet.

It’s less of a digital transformation and more of a digital transposition.

Some organisations are thinking about content as part of digital transformation. They’re seeing content as interconnected and modular, not a set of static and separate products. They’re thinking about content as a business asset. The rise of the headless CMS is contributing to this shift.  But this requires a fundamental change to ways of working, and there will be inertia.

How do we shift this?

If we keep running up against clients holding on to PDFs for dear life, how can we get people thinking ‘digital first’?

Share the metrics

Track downloads of PDFs. Are they actually being used? A report by the World Bank showed that more than 30 percent of PDF reports on their site were never downloaded.

Show the user experience

Test for some of the common PDF problems we’ve identified. We can tell clients that PDFs are bad, but when we show real people struggling, the message will cut through.

Show the risks

PDFs often duplicate information that’s also available online. If both records aren’t kept up-to-date and in sync, there’s a risk of misinformation where there isn’t one source of truth.

If an organisation doesn’t publish accessible PDFs, they risk legal action - and losing the trust of their audience.

Count the cost

If someone we want to reach can’t use a PDF, what are the opportunity costs in lost business, or lost opportunities to connect? What are the operational costs, when people call the contact centre for information that’s buried on page 58 of the PDF?

Start somewhere

Organisations may not have the budget to convert all their PDFs to HTML web content all at once. So pick a place to start: the most commonly-downloaded PDFs, for example. Introduce policies for new content, embedding digital-first, so you’re stopping the influx of PDFs.  Engage clients in defining the new formats.  If you want them to let go of PDFs, give them something else to hold on to.

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Find what your users want from you without leaving your kitchen table.

March 9, 2017

6:52 am

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About the author

Matt Fenwick

Matt Fenwick is a content strategist for government and peak bodies. He enjoys big hairy content projects, like rewriting government travel information for most of the countries in the world. Matt runs True North Content and lives in Canberra, Australia, which is the one city where kangaroos really do roam the streets at night. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.

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