When You Should or Shouldn’t Use a PDF

— Written By Jeff Ware
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Before I get into the pros and cons of using PDFs in your content, consider this – 47% of our page views currently (as of June 2021) come from mobile users. Almost half our traffic! This is important because, when it comes to viewing content, the easier it is to access, the better. And PDFs are just not conducive for viewing on small screens.

There are, however, times when a PDF may be a viable option, but deciding whether or not to use one really depends on the content you are presenting.

When PDFs Can Be Useful

Printable Documents, Forms, & Flyers – If you are requiring people to download and fill out a static form or document (i.e., offline registration, etc.), a PDF is ideal because it preserves the original dimensions of your document. Whereas content designed for screens is meant to adapt to different devices and screen sizes.

Flyers are also optimal as PDFs, but should only be used as supplemental material. Any critical information (the who, what, when, where, and why, registration URL, etc.) should be presented as text / HTML because it’s A LOT easier to view and update if your event / webinar / class information changes – there’s nothing you can do about a PDF that someone has already downloaded.

Tables – If you need to create a table that has so many data columns that it pushes your content out of the set content space and makes a user scroll horizontally, putting that data into a spreadsheet and creating a PDF could be an option.

Creating Accessible PDFs

If you decide to use a PDF, it should be created in a way that makes it accessible unless that information is also provided in another accessible format. Do not create PDFs by printing to a PDF or by scanning content and saving it as a PDF.

The first step to creating an accessible PDF is to make sure that the original document is accessible. In most cases, this would start with creating an accessible Word document. The University of Washington has some great resources for  Creating Accessible Documents in Microsoft Word and for Creating Accessible PDFs from Microsoft Word.

When Not to Use PDFs

A PDF should never be a substitute for actual content on your page, post, or email. If it can be created using text / HTML, that’s how it should be presented (again, there are some exceptions for supplemental content as seen above). Your ultimate goal should be to present information as easily and as readily accessible as you can for your audience, in as few clicks as possible.

As part of NC State University, we are required to adhere to guidelines that allow for anyone, regardless of disability, to access the information we create and distribute through Extension.

“NC State University is committed to providing equal access to its educational services, programs, and activities in accordance with federal and state laws and, as part of that commitment, to creating an information and communication technology environment that is accessible to all, including individuals with disabilities. Creating an accessible information and communication technology environment is the responsibility of all University administrators, faculty, and staff. This regulation applies to the university’s information and communication technology resources and includes their procurement, development, implementation, and ongoing maintenance.”

Eventbrite / ActiveCampaign Users – the same would apply for any Eventbrite or ActiveCampaign event page or email – all relevant information should be presented as text / HTML. A PDF should only be used as supplemental material.

For more information see the Accessibility at NC State University website.

Some general information to think about when using PDFs:

  • PDFs don’t load well on mobile devices and require lots of pinching / panning / zooming, etc.
  • Some browsers force a file download instead of opening the PDF directly, which leads to multiple clicks to get to the content.
  • PDFs are limited in how much analytical data they can provide. For instance, we can tell exactly how long someone spends reading a webpage, but not a PDF.
  • Larger file sizes can be prohibitive for mobile users in rural areas or areas with a poor or limited data connection.
  • PDFs often don’t rank well in Google searches and don’t contribute to SEO for your content, which can make your message harder to find.
  • Users are not able to link to a specific part of the document like you can with a webpage.