PDF (Portable Document Format)

Only create PDFs if your research shows there are specific needs for this format. Make PDF content accessible to everyone who needs it.

Create webpages by default

Create content in HTML pages instead of PDFs.

You can configure HTML pages for printing and sharing.

Usability problems with PDFs

PDFs often create problems for users, including:

  • Scalability – PDFs do not reflow to fit the user's screen or browser windows.
  • Speed – PDF files are much larger than optimised HTML pages. They can be harder for people with slow internet access to use.
  • Navigation – you cannot link from a page to a section of a PDF. PDFs can also cause disorientation when they open in a new tab or a different tool.
  • Search engine optimisation – PDFs are often not tagged. This makes it hard for search engines to find the content.
  • Update and maintenance – people download and share PDFs. This makes it harder to update the information they refer to.

Accessibility considerations

User needs:

  • I can access the content in the format I need.
  • I can change the content’s presentation without losing information or structure.

For a comprehensive list, refer to the overview on accessibility.

PDFs often create challenges for people using assistive technologies, including text to voice. Assistive technologies often cannot use PDF tagging to describe headings and other elements. It can also be difficult to navigate complex layouts (for example, 2 columns).

You must make all government content accessible to people with disability. This is part of Australian law under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. The Act says if you use PDFs you must also provide the content in another format that is accessible.

Do research to find why users need a PDF

Your research may show that a HTML page may not meet certain user needs. People may need to share documents with specific functionality or layout. This might include a pamphlet or form.

Before using a PDF, check if other document formats, such as EPUB, will meet the need. EPUB documents scale to the screen sizes of different mobile devices.

Don't use a Microsoft Word document if you need to protect the document from changes when shared.

Make PDF content accessible to all users

When you publish a PDF:

Guidance on creating accessible PDFs:

There may be barriers to creating accessible formats from certain existing PDFs. Government is not allowed to change some documents authored by independent organisations. This includes audits and privacy impact assessments.

When there are significant barriers to providing content in another format, at least:

  • create a landing page with a high-level summary of the content
  • provide a way for people to request an accessible version (for example, an email address).

Release notes

The digital edition explains accessibility and usability issues with PDFs. It recommends how to make PDF content accessible if there is a user need to publish a PDF.

The sixth edition discussed using PDFs to create digital versions of print publications.

The Content Guide explained accessibility issues with using PDFs. It provided recommendations on how to make them more accessible.

About this page

References

Nielsen J, Kaley A (2020) Avoid PDF for On-Screen Reading, Nielsen Norman Group, accessed 28 January 2021

Williams N (2018) Why GOV.UK content should be published in HTML and not PDF (2018), GOV.UK, accessed 28 January 2021

Fenwick M (2020), Why are PDFs (mostly) awful and what’s the alternative, GatherContent, accessed 28 January 2021

This page was updated Friday 7 May 2021.

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