Using PDFs on websites

There are a couple of relatively recent innovations that have made the use of PDFs on websites less of a good idea and these are:

  • the proliferation of mobile devices
  • PDF forms don’t integrate with software systems
  • PDFs go stale the moment they are printed

Website owners should therefore think about the alternatives.

The problems

Mobile devices

Tapping on a link that goes to a PDF frequently initiates a download rather than opening the document in a reader, and a good many people will have no idea where that download has gone or how to access it – particularly if they are disinclined to open it immediately because they are off browsing another page during the download.

On opening the PDF, the text will almost certainly be way too small and so will require a lot of zooming and panning in order to read the document. This high interaction cost will be off-putting for users. It may be that the website owner expects them to print the document if need be, but since I have come across people who have spent over a year trying to get their wireless printing to work, this should not be a given particularly if your visitors are largely domestic or have older printers.

There are two alternatives:

  • replace PDFs with standard web pages
  • create an app to render the data – this is how airlines now do boarding passes


People are used to paper forms, so it can seem ‘easy’ to render a properly paginated form into a PDF so a user can fill it in. If this data is then copied from the form into a computer-based system, then you’ve missed a trick. If this PDF form is converted to a web form that updates that computer-based system directly you’ve immediately eliminated transcription errors.


Once upon a time businesses would keep reference material in filing cabinets or be obliged (like aeroplane pilots) to lug around tens of kilograms of paper.

Apart from the space, weight and storage considerations, the problem with anything printed is that it has the potential to go out of date. A more modern approach to reference material is to make it available on a web address where it can always be kept up to date.

The cost of changing from PDFs, the cost of not changing from PDFs

Last things first: the main cost of not changing PDFs to something else is that you will lose visitor interest and they will wander off elsewhere.

Changing documents

PDFs are usually generated from a word processor like Microsoft Word, though it might also be from a desktop publishing app like Adobe InDesign or Quark Xpress. A converter will be needed to generate ‘responsive’ web pages from these files. Here is a discussion about using Microsoft Word to write content for the web.

Changing to web forms

The cost of changing to web forms will depend enormously on their complexity. However once on the web, it’s easier to make forms more interactive:

  • validating data as it is entered
  • offering different form ‘fields’ depending on the answers received thus far
  • validating the email address on submission

These can bring cost benefits through receiving better quality data.

If your back-office system does not have any out-of-the-box means of integrating web data then for a high transaction volume website, you will have to commission someone to write a transfer system. For low transaction volume websites, then copy and paste will be the order of the day – but even that should be quicker and less prone to transcription errors than a PDF-based system.

Here is a bit more on the benefits of using web forms.

There will be times when only a PDF will do

In some applications there may be overriding reasons for using PDF files or having a PDF option available:

  • not all websites will be completely mobile-friendly (think of those with wide or long data tables), so the limitations of mobile devices may not apply.
  • a paper aircraft boarding pass is still a useful backup for an app version

So the conversion to non-PDF formats can never be a universal prescription, but equally that should not be used as an excuse not to change them wherever possible.