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PDFs: Usability and Accessibility

Best Practices

Whenever possible, for all the reasons stated below, web content should be primarily available in a web page (HTML).

If desired, a PDF version can be posted as alternate content or a companion document. In this case, the Accessibility Statement on the accompanying PDF can refer the visitor to the web page URL for accessibile content and the PDF does not need to be fully remediated.

Universal Design and Accessibility

Accessible web content refers to Section 508 and WCAG 2.0 compliant content that supports assistive technology without the need for additional accomodation for any individual visitor.

Universal Design refers to web content that is usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. It includes Accessibilty but affects all website visitors and is much broader than simply complying with Section 508 and WCAG 2.0.

A website built with Universal Design in mind is one that provides a quality and usable experience for visitors:

  • On whatever device they are using (smart phones, desktops, tablets and notepads)
  • Using the software of their choice (browser, screen reader or magnifier, closed captioning, etc.)
  • Using any assistive device of their choice (eyeglasses, speakers, hearing aids, special mouse or keyboard switches, etc.)
  • At the time of day of their choice
  • In the language of their choice
  • That allows them to navigate, scan, read, interact, and make decisions at the speed of their choice

Device compatibility and language are becoming increasingly important. It’s worth noting that according to a Pew Research Center survey from May 2011:

  • Twice as many Blank or Hispanic adult smart phone users (38%) go online mostly using their cell phones when compared to White, non-Hispanic adults (17%)
  • 42% of smart phone users ages 18-29 go online mostly using their cell phones compared with 21% of adults ages 30-49 and only 10% of adults age 50 and older

Source: The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, April 26 - May 22, 2011 Spring Tracking Survey. See Digital Differences for the full article.

The Advantages of Web Pages

Properly designed web pages (HTML) are generally accessible without excessive remediation. Even in web pages, images still require alternate text and slide shows or carousels require controls to slow or pause the presentation but these tools are useful for all visitors and in some cases improve search engine rankings.

  1. Web content can be easily searched by standard website search functionality
  2. Web pages do not require any special software to be installed to view the content
  3. Web content does not require a file to be downloaded, therefore our visitors will not unnecessarily use their data plan just to find the phone number on page 7
  4. Web pages render faster since only one page of content is needed at any one time while the entire PDF must download before the visitor can access the content, regardless of how much they intend to read
  5. GoogleTM Translate will automatically translate web content (on those sites where GoogleTM Translate has been implemented)
  6. Modifying web content is a simple task but modified PDFs require the remediation process to be repeated in its entirety
  7. Web content has context, left menu, contact information and related or supporting content is easily available
  8. Web pages can be formatted for desktops, smart phones and tablets to improve the user experience on the chosen device.
  9. Well designed web pages, by definition, provides structured content which assists in both accessibility and search engine indexing processes.

Usability Concerns

Website visitors are busy. They have questions and are looking for answers. Some visitors are prone to use navigation and links to find the answers, others are more likely to search.

They all tend to scan web pages, not read them, at least until they have found the content they’ve been looking for.

PDFs often do not have links to the primary website for related content and, in fact, often do not contain links within the text at all. And if the PDF links out to a website or another document, the visitor is asked if they want to execute the link and whether this is their preference for all links. Answering this question incorrectly can further isolate the content and negatively impact the user experience.

Some PDFs are large enough to warrant their own Table of Contents which, in effect, results a mini-website. Only this type of "navigation" is often not clickable and this version needs structure applied, remediation and potentially translation.

Due to the inherent remediation effort, updating PDF content to keep it current and relavent is often avoided, impacting the quality of the content which negatively impacts the user experience further.

Bilingual Content

If PDF content is desired in both English and Spanish, the content must be translated and both versions of the PDF need to be remediated for accessibility. If the PDF content is later modified, the translation and remediateion will need to be repeated for both versions.

GoogleTM Translate only translates web content, it does not translate PDFs or images with embedded text.

Content without Context

PDF content is independently discoverable by the search engines. The PDF often does not include references to a website for context or related content.

This can be particularly problematic for historical content where multiple PDFs describe a subject over time. Since there is no navigaion, no reference to a collection of related versions, the content of a single PDF can be misinterpreted as if it depicts a current or unchanging situation.

From a search engine ranking perspective, we have lost the opportunity to bring visitors to our website where they might learn of additional services and opportunities.

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