When providing document files for people to read online, the main concern should be for the user experience and access.

When Should PDFs Be Used in Digital Media

Use this list of use cases to determine if PDF files should be used to place content and made accessible to provide electronically:

  • Formatting is critical and must be retained and secured
    Content that must be displayed in a specific way due to governmental regulations. Regulated content in PDF format is often secured so users cannot edit them. If webpages link to forms that must be displayed in a specific way due to government or other regulation, a PDF file is a great solution. Acrobat can be used to make PDF forms easier to fill out. Plus, anyone familiar with the printed form will be instantly comfortable with the online version. Examples: regulated forms. Note: If forms are not regulated and required to appear in certain displays, create a web form in websites instead. Note: there is no university requirement to place content into PDF files.

  • Printing is required
    Documents that are required to be printed out in an exact format for all users, such as applications or complex processes, and not simply read online in different layouts. Examples: program application, resumes, human resource form.

  • Large complex documents for download/offline use
    Long and complex documents that users are required to have on their devices. Using PDFs is much better than Word documents. Readers can't modify PDFs like they can the Word documents, and you can be sure that people on various types of computers will be able to open and use them. Example: student handbooks, department program catalogs, complex research reports, lab results, documents with complex graphics and illustrations interpreting concepts and data. These documents can also be made available to users upon request, e.g. a link to an e-mail to request the document or via a webform where they can express interest in acquiring the print version.

Accessible PDFs for Electronic Media

A PDF document with or without designed accessible graphics is readable if:

  • the information is effectively tagged and can be read by an assistive device such as screen reader.
  • it has a hierarchy of headings for clarity and understanding.
  • the lists, tables, and paragraphs are marked so that visual information is pragmatically available.
  • Long documents have bookmarks to allow readers to jump to specified topics within the document.
  • important images have alt tags so that they are accessible when not seen.
  • unimportant images and graphics have empty alt tags so they can be skipped.
  • it has correct Tab order so a keyboard-only user can follow the correct order.
  • it has meta data (title, author, lanquage setting, keywords, etc.) for discoverability.