PDF files or Acrobat Portable Document Format files are a tool for Web designers, but sometimes they can become a bane of Web customers as not all Web designers follow good usability when including PDFs in their Web pages. The following best practices will help you create a website that uses PDFs in an effective way without annoying your readers or driving them to find the content they want elsewhere.
First, Design Your PDFs Well
Small PDFs are Good PDFs
Just because a PDF can be made of any Word document doesn't mean that it shouldn't follow the same rules of any other Web page or downloadable file. If you're creating a PDF for your customers to read online you should make it small. No more than 30-40KB. Most browsers need to download the full PDF before they can render it, so anything larger will take a long time to download, and your readers might just hit the back button and leave rather than wait for it.
Optimize PDF Images
Just like with Web pages, PDFs that have images in them should use images that are optimized for the Web. If you don't optimize the images, the PDF will be much larger and thus slower to download.
Practice Good Web Writing in Your PDF Files
Just because the content is in a PDF doesn't mean you can forgo good writing. And if the document is intended to be read in Acrobat Reader or some other online device, then the same rules for Web writing apply to your PDF. If the PDF is intended to be printed, then you can write for a print audience, but bear in mind that some people will still want to read your PDF online, if only to save paper.
Make the Font Legible
Unless you know that your core audience is kids under 18, you should make the font larger than your first impulse. While it is possible to zoom in on PDF documents in many readers, not all users know how to do this. It's better to have your font size legible from the get-go. Ask your parent or grandparent to read the document with the default font size if you're not sure if it's big enough.
Incude Navigation in the PDF
While most readers include some way to see an overview of the PDF document, if you include a clickable table of contents, forward and back buttons, and other navigation you'll have a PDF that is much easier to use. If you make that navigation similar to your site navigation, you'll even have some branding built in.
Then Design your Site to Handle the PDFs
Always Indicate a PDF Link
Don't expect your readers to look at the link location before they click - tell them up front that the link they are about to click is a PDF. Even when the browser opens a PDF inside the Web browser window, it can be a jarring experience for customers. Usually the PDF is in a different design style from the website and this can confuse people. Letting them know they're going to open a PDF is just courteous. And then they can right-click to download and print the PDF if they want to.
Use PDFs as an Alternative
PDF files make a great alternative to Web pages. Use them for pages that people might want to print or to provide an easier way to look at catalogs or forms. Just don't use them as the only way to get at that catalog or form unless you have a very specific reason for it. One person I know uses a PDF and an HTML catalog for his website:
We have an online catalog in HTML but also have that same catalog in an online PDF format (See complete comment)
Use PDFs Appropriately
My alternate title for this section is "don't be lazy". Yes, PDFs can be a fast way to get content that's written in Word documents up onto a website. But, honestly, you can use a tool like Dreamweaver to convert the Word document to HTML just as quickly - and then you can add your site navigation and functionality. Many people are turned off by websites where only the front page is HTML and the rest of the links are PDFs. Below I'll provide some appropriate uses for PDF files.
Appropriate Uses of PDF Files on Web Pages
There are many great reasons to use PDFs, here are some ways to use them that won't annoy your readers, but instead will help them:
- Regulated forms
If your website points to forms that must be displayed in a specific way due to government or other regulation, a PDF file is a great solution. You can even use Acrobat to make it easier to fill out. Plus, anyone familiar with the printed form will be instantly comfortable with the online version.
- Documents for printing
If you're providing documents that need to be printed, you can provide them as PDFs.
- Securing documents
You can put locks on PDFs to prevent people from reading them. Keep in mind that you can do other things with HTML to protect your documents and locking PDFs can just end up annoying people, especially if they forget the password or are otherwise supposed to have access but don't.
- Document downloads
If you have long documents that you provide on your website, using PDFs is much better than the Word document itself. Readers can't modify the PDF like they can the Word document, and you can be sure that people on various types of computers will be able to open and use them.