Avoid PDFs
While PDFs provide a convenient way to present information in a universal and printable format, they are not ideal for web use. There are several reasons why we should move away from relying on PDFs and towards presenting content with text on a page.

They lack accessibility

When content is presented on web pages, it’s easier for users to adjust settings (such as text size and color,) to fit their needs, this is not always possible with PDFs. They might not be readable by programs that scan for translation and readability. Furthermore, unless you take steps to ensure accessibility, your PDF document might not be compatible with assistive technology like screen readers. Section 508 is a government resource that provides more information on PDF accessibility standards.

They are difficult to manage

Content on a web page is easier to update and keep relevant, and reduces the likelihood that there are outdated documents floating around on the web.

They lack context and cause confusion

If a resident finds your document through a search engine, they won’t have an easy way to access your other web content that may also be useful. PDFs that automatically download or open in a new window can also cause the user confusion.

They don’t generate data

We can’t get data on the way people interact with a PDF the way we can with an online form or web page. For instance, you might want to know how much time residents typically spend on a form and where the bottlenecks are. Without this information, it’s hard to make improvements.

When it’s OK to use PDFs

Although we want to create a web experience with less reliance on PDFs, there are some instances where it’s justifiable to present information in a PDF document.

Non-automatable or in-person interactions

If a form requires an in-person interaction or a step that cannot be easily automated, a PDF might make sense. An example of this is a form that needs to be printed in order to get a notary’s signature.

An application process that requires amendments or corrections post-submission

If an online form-building tool makes it difficult for an applicant to access their application once it’s been submitted and doing so would require staff intervention, you might be better off using a PDF.

Static or time-bound content

For information that conveys a static record of a point-in-time that is published for documentation purposes, PDFs might offer a simpler alternative to creating multiple web pages. An example of this would be a meeting agenda or minutes.
Section 508 is a good government resource for accessibility and provides guidance on creating accessible pdfs.

When to move away from PDFs:

Highly-requested PDFs

Consider converting highly-requested documents into web pages. If this content is easily accessible by web, you will reduce the number of times residents call or email your office to request information that should already be available online.


For a seamless experience, consider digital forms. Many departments across the City use Formstack, a web-based form builder, to digitize their paper forms.

Last modified 1yr ago