Time to break up with PDFs?

  • Author: Tim Lohman
  • Date: 13 May 2014

Media Access Australia’s Access iQ spoke to Dan Craddock ahead of his presentation on PDF accessibility at the Melbourne A11y Bytes event on 15 May.  The event, also occurring in Sydney, celebrates Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

Access iQ: Why is it time to stop using PDFs?

Dan Craddock: PDF is a wonderful format for print publishing; it’s saved countless hours and dollars in managing publications from design to the printed page. However, just because PDFs are designed on screen doesn’t mean they are good for reading on screen. The screen — especially the mobile screen — is a far different user experience to the printed page, and requires a whole other approach to designing and rendering content than that of the traditional document format.

What are the major accessibility issues with PDFs?

Firstly, as the Australian Government's 2010 study into the Accessibility of the Portable Document Format for people with a disability found, users navigating correctly formatted PDF documents rated them a relatively satisfactory user experience. However, unformatted PDFs proved far more difficult to navigate. And let’s not kid ourselves; the vast majority of PDFs on the web have not been formatted correctly. Why? Because originally, most were intended for print. When it came time to publish the same information to the web, the existing (untouched) PDF was often uploaded because of a lack of awareness, time, money and resources to re-format the PDF and/or re-create the content in HTML.

Secondly, PDF reader plug-ins have an annoying history of compatibility issues with web browsers. Personally, I’ve lost count of the number of times a PDF stopped loading halfway through or crashed my browser.

Thirdly, many people have access to the web via mobile alone. PDFs are a terrible user experience on small screen. Asking your already hurried users on 3G coverage with a limited data plan to download an 8MB PDF, two-column document that requires them to constantly pinch, pull, scroll up, and scroll down just to read the one chunk of content they actually need buried on page 64, is telling them to suck eggs.

It’s possible to make PDFs accessible, right? So do we really need to stop using PDFs?

To be clear, PDFs have their place as a design-to-press tool for print management, but I struggle to think of an example where publishing to PDF for a screen audience is a better user experience for people without a disability, let alone those with a disability.

PDF documents can be made more accessible. But as many users of assistive technology will attest, even thoughtfully designed and tagged PDFs can still pose access and compatibility issues for screen readers, particularly older versions. Some screen readers are expensive to update, so many financially disadvantaged users are stuck with aging versions of their software, which can’t always take advantage of accessibility advancements in the PDF format.

What alternative(s) to PDFs should people use?

No format provides the perfect, accessible experience. If everyone had the same level of dis/ability and used the same version of the same assistive technology on the same version of the same web browser on the same version of the same operating system on the same version of the same device, we might get halfway to ‘perfection’. But in the absence of fantasy, we should prioritise publishing content for the screen in the most open, adaptable, responsive and accessible format, which is HTML. The same applies to forms, but if you don’t have access to a good HTML forms developer (which is often critical when integrating with back-end systems, such as CRMs) go for a well-formatted Word doc. Your users will appreciate the ability to enter responses on-screen and attach to an email, rather than having to print, hand-fill and post.

Do these alternatives have accessibility issues of their own?

Absolutely, but it’s mostly in the execution rather than the underlying technology. A poorly built or customised content management system or WYSIWYG editor will produce bad HTML, and bad HTML is bad content. Likewise, the interactivity offered by the web creates its own complexities and compatibility considerations that if not created to WCAG 2.0 standards, will pose problems for any user. When choosing or customising a CMS, always insist on WCAG 2.0 compliance in your RFQ/tender documents. Some vendors will rely on your ignorance in this area in order to score a free pass, so always seek genuine evidence of their ability to deliver.

Word documents, being less complex, have less potential pain points. But it doesn’t take long to learn how to create a great Word doc by applying text styles, alt text for images, and a table of contents. There’s no excuse for inaccessible Word documents; if you learn how to use Word properly, you’ll find it takes you much less time to create documents and invariably, they’ll also be accessible.

What will it take to convince the world to abandon the PDF format?

Again, speaking of PDFs purely from a web content perspective, I’m seeing them abandoned slowly but surely. I’m seeing attitudes change as organisations become aware of the needs of people with disabilities, as well as their legal obligations. They begin, with the best intentions, by throwing money at creating tagged PDFs and Word equivalents. They then realise that creating and maintaining multiple versions of their content is unsustainable, so instead, we’ll see them concentrate on publishing in their users’ preferred format; HTML. This makes perfect sense. If only a fraction of your website’s visitors are downloading the PDF equivalent of your HTML pages, why are you expending precious resources creating them? Save PDFs for print publications, and save a lot of money — and your content creators’ sanity — in the process!

Final thoughts on document accessibility?

Digital by default is a good starting point. The majority of people coming to your website want and expect to open HTML content, regardless of ability, and I’m confident your analytics will back this up. The need to provide PDF versions on the web of your print publications is a myth that’s been driven by legacy organisational and print thinking. The web is about searching, chunking, linking, and increasingly in a mobile world, responsiveness. None of those elements can be executed better (and some not at all) in the traditional document format, including PDF.

You can register to attend the A11y Bytes events in Sydney or Melbourne on 15 May at the A11y Bytes homepage.