PDFs: Understanding the Love-Hate Relationship (And What To Use Instead)

Portable Document Format, or PDF, files have been around since 1992, offering a software-agnostic solution for presenting and sharing digital documents. For organizations that existed before the ’90s, PDFs became an easy way to move from physical to digital; they could take the same documents they used to print and now share them digitally as PDFs.

A few years after PDFs were officially launched, CSS came onto the scene as the preferred computer language for styling web pages. Over the following three decades, PDF capabilities grew alongside CSS and other digital technologies, giving creators new ways to lay out and publish their content.

Fast forward to today. Developers worldwide (Oomph among them) have been making websites for a while. We have online forms, interactive databases, and of course, plain old text on a webpage. And yet, PDFs persist.

What’s So Bad About PDFs?

Mobile Phones

Think of the last time you tried looking at a PDF on your phone. First off, there’s the issue of finding it. Depending on your operating system and browser, the file might open right in a new browser tab, or it might download and disappear into some folder you forgot about until this exact moment. (And of course, when you find the folder, you realize this is the fifth time you’ve downloaded this same file.)

Now that you’ve opened the file, you see the tiny text of an 8.5” x 11” page shrunk to a quarter of its intended size. So you pinch, zoom, and drag the page around your screen. You might rotate your phone to the dreaded horizontal orientation to fit a whole line of text at once. If this PDF is a fillable form, you may be simply out of luck on your mobile device unless you’re ready to go down a rabbit hole of separate apps and workarounds.

If, for just a minute, we want to ignore the massive amount of mobile usage — including the 15% of American adults who fully depend on phones for internet access — there’s plenty more cause for PDF concern.

Accessibility

Let’s talk about accessibility. There’s a good chance that your digital properties, including PDFs, are legally required to conform to accessibility standards. This is true for government entities — both federal and more recently, state, local, and district governments, thanks to a Title II update — as well as businesses and nonprofit organizations. 

Beyond the legalities, the CDC reports that about 27% of American adults have a disability. While not all 70 million of these people use a screen reader, we know some people use assistive technology even if they don’t identify as having a disability. (When’s the last time you pressed a button to open a door just because your hands were full or to let a large group of people pass through?) Improvements for the sake of accessibility, more often than not, lead to a more effortless, more intuitive experience for everyone.

While it’s possible to make a PDF accessible, the process for doing so is extensive and involves several manual checks. This can be so time-consuming and specialized that businesses and professionals dedicate themselves entirely to remediating PDFs for accessibility. 

Of course, making a website accessible isn’t as easy as plug-and-play, but accessibility should already be built into the system. Content editors who are not technical professionals can publish accessible content with relative ease on an accessible website platform (as long as we can all remember not to link “click here”) but are typically left to their own devices when it comes to documents.

Brand Reputation

Beyond these critical issues, there are a few more problems that are less vital to users but could have a negative business impact. 

For one, documents like PDFs open up a whole world of styling possibilities. The flexibility might feel like a benefit at first, but give it a little time and I’m certain you’ll start seeing inconsistencies from one document to the next. Add in a few more people preparing these files, and those small differences will pile up, giving users an impression that maybe the business is not quite as put together as they thought. (Not to mention that every change in presentation is asking users to understand a new format, slowing them down or confusing them.) Consistency is key to building a trustworthy brand; every unnecessary variation erodes that trust.

There’s also the near certainty that the information provided in PDFs will need updating. When that happens, you’d better make sure to delete the old file in favor of the new one and update all your links. Since the file format made it easy (or necessary) for users to download the content to their devices, there’s a greater chance that they’ll hold onto old information, even though a newer version is now on the website.

Finally, storing important information in PDFs gives you less control over optimizing for search engines. Google has a tough time reading PDF content (though proper tagging and metadata will help), so these files often rank lower in search results than webpages with similar content. The more that content lives in PDFs and not webpages, the more your SEO will suffer, and the less likely people will be to find and consume your content.

What You Can Do Instead

Like I said, PDFs solved a real problem… 30 years ago. They still have their place today, but more often than not, there’s a better way.

Does It Need To Be a PDF?

When the PDF is just a basic document of text, we recommend turning that into a basic webpage of text. It’s easy to say, but making it happen might mean taking a fresh look at why that information is in a PDF in the first place.

Custom Layout

If you’re using PDFs to create a certain layout, consider how you can achieve something similar through CSS. You might be able to build something you like using the layout and style options already available in your CMS, but you probably won’t create a perfect 1:1 match. 

Any design in a Word or Google document can also exist on a webpage. If there’s a certain design you use time and time again in your PDFs that you just can’t recreate with the web editing tools, you might need some new code. It becomes an exercise in prioritization to weigh the benefits of building a custom layout against the time and cost of doing so. 

Also, remember that a design that works well for a printed page may not be the best design for a responsive webpage. Rather than recreating the exact layout digitally, ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve with the layout and whether there’s a better way to meet that same goal. While unique designs may be more difficult to create on a webpage than a PDF, I’d urge you to consider this a benefit in most cases. Limitations create consistency, which will most likely simplify the experience for both content editors and users.

Designing for Print

Speaking of print, that might be another reason for including PDFs. You may know that a portion of your audience will want to print out the page, maybe to annotate it or to have it on hand as they complete a related task.

In reality, you can serve this user without sacrificing everyone else’s online experience. Developers can use targeted CSS to customize how a webpage will print or export — including what content will display and its styling. Going this route affects how the page will print with the browser tool, and you could even provide a “Print” link if that’s a common need. Ultimately, targeted CSS means the printed content can look as similar or different from the webpage as needed. 

Process 

Another common cause for PDFs is that they’re simply baked into the content publishing process. Whether from fear of changing approved content or a lack of knowledge around what’s possible in the CMS, content teams may use PDF uploads as a fallback for publishing the information quickly and moving on.

A solution here may be to bring your site editor into the process sooner. As the web expert, they can speak to what will work well and what might need to change when moving the content to a webpage. The site editor may need to be heavily involved at first, but their load should lighten as the writers and other team members learn the website’s needs. 

In some cases, it might also be worth building new CMS templates, such as content types. This can be especially helpful for reinforcing consistency when several people manage the website. If the content needs to follow a specific format, a highly structured edit form can act as an outline. You can share this template with the original content creators so that everyone is working toward a shared goal. 

Repurposed Content

Most likely, your organization does more than manage a website. Maybe you have a brick-and-mortar office with brochures and paperwork, or you host webinars with branded slide decks. There are plenty of reasons you might create and share documents other than uploading them onto your website, but you still want the same information available online. And since it’s already put together, the easiest way to share it could be to upload the PDF.

Unfortunately, this is a situation where easy doesn’t cut it. The same tri-fold brochure that looks professional and appealing on a reception desk can be confusing and annoying on a computer or phone. A printed form works great for in-office visitors, but a web form can give users the benefits of autocomplete and progressive disclosure they’ve come to expect online. 

The best experience for your users requires attention to their context. Ultimately, we need to be intentional and thoughtful about what users need in their current situation, which may require different presentations of the same content.

Embrace Digital

We’re not expecting to see the end of PDFs on websites anytime soon. For one, sometimes it’s simply out of your control. Maybe you’re providing an official government form that only exists as a fillable PDF. Even if the document is internally produced, change may be lengthy and involved, requiring buy-in from those who hold the purse strings.

While we wait for the world to change, we can advocate for a better user experience. If a PDF “needs” to stay, maybe you can duplicate the most important content onto the page linking to it. If you have any control over the document itself, you can test for accessibility and make sure it’s properly tagged. Get started with the tools and guidance we’ve collected in this accessibility resources document.

How easily your audience can access your information and services sets the tone for how they perceive your organization. The good news is that there’s so much you can do to make their experience positive, no matter how they choose to interact with your content. If you need help, let us know.

Related tags: Design Consultation

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Rachel Hart

UI Designer

Over my career in design, I’ve seen firsthand how visuals can solve complex challenges in digital communication and interaction. I believe that fully understanding the problem is essential to designing the solution.

When our clients come to me with an idea, I like to start with “Why?” so we can achieve the best result together. That sense of curiosity propelled me from a fine art and graphic design background toward responsive, interactive visual solutions that improve users' lives.

Before joining Oomph, I worked with the State of Georgia to create purposeful and strategic designs. In my time with state government, I learned how people from all backgrounds use digital products, and developed a user-first mindset that I carry through to my work today. One of my proudest moments was creating the design system for Georgia’s digital ecosystem — a massive initiative that launched in 2023.

Outside of work, I enjoy making pottery and other physical art, playing board games or video games, and snuggling up with my dog. From morning to night, you’ll pretty much always find me with speakers on, either jamming to my favorite folk artists, or catching up on podcasts.