When PDFs should be used on a Website

A PDF is a Portable Document Format. They tend to get produced when, for example, you have a brochure created; a commercial printer will need a high res file to print out, that file is typically a PDF.

Many businesses are awash with PDFs; from old brochures, to product specifications.

And, when it comes to a website redesign project, this content (quite rightly) gets considered for inclusion.

Ask yourself why?

As a general rule of thumb; at this point, we need to stop and ask ourselves ‘why?‘. Why should we add this PDF to the website?

That’s because, PDFs add another layer of complexity for our website visitors. They have to open or download the PDF to get at the content it contains. You can only imagine the pain of doing this on a smartphone.

If the content in the PDF is crucial to the website visitor, then you really want to think about making the content native to the web page itself (e.g. HTML, like this). When content is native on web page, it is much more versatile & accessible than when locked up in (say) a PDF.

Oh, and don’t forget, you can just as easily print out a web page as you can a PDF.  Web pages print perfectly well, thank you very much.

That’s not to say that PDFs have no place on a website. E.g. if you have a PDF of brochure which has some information which some visitors may find interesting, then why not add it as an ‘additional download document at the bottom of the page? That’s fine. If what you are doing makes sense to the intended audience of your website, then go ahead.

Attaching Best Practices.

When you attach a PDF to your page, I would make it very, very clear that you are doing so. Don’t just link to a PDF as it can create a very uncomfortable user experience; a person clicks on such a link and then they, all of sudden, are opening a PDF – this is clunky at the best of times; and even worse on mobile phones. I liken open these links to treading on a rake, an uncomfortable experience at best.

To make things better, clearly indicate that the document they’ll be opening is actually a PDF. Better still, display its file size. This extra information helps people judge as to whether they want to click on that link in the first place.

Hopefully this gives you some food for thought before you attach a PDF etc to a website.

p.s. where possible, try to get ‘web ready‘ versions of PDFs. These versions tend to be much smaller in file size than the high res versions required by commercial printers.

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