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PDF Best Practices

June 15, 2023

for Better Digital Accessibility and Usability

PDFs – Portable Document Formats — were a technological breakthrough when launched by Adobe 1.0 in 1993. They allowed people to share documents without formatting and font compatibility issues from device to device, largely via email.

Fast forward 20 years and PDFs are still omnipresent and while they can be viewed directly on the web, it is time to “Up” our game.

Why we Should not Post PDFs

The PDF format is designed for printed documents and has inherent usability and accessibility issues when posted on web pages in lieu of html.

PDFs require extra attention to be properly tagged and interpreted by screen readers (See Yale’s Digital Accessibility Policy)

It is an extra step for users to open them and requires additional software that can be slow.

50% of YSM’s web traffic is via mobile devices and PDFs do not work quickly or easily on most smart phones.

PDFs often contain links that are not maintained resulting poor user experience.

Those bad links hurt the school’s SEO score with Google.

Best Practices

If the content is text, it will be evaluated by the web team for alternative presentation formats such as: calendar tool, html page, people listings, google sheet portals, clinical trial highlight or listing presentations

Archival material should be housed by the department on other platforms, such as ELI Scholar, Department shared drives or shared box accounts.

PDFs used as a visual element should be replaced with an image without text (not a .jpg version of the PDF).

PDFs can be attached as a secondary format for the material, marked as “Download for printing” or “Download PDF version of this material.”

Departments that maintain policies in PDF formats with frequent updates are accountable for maintaining the accessibility of their documents. The web team may suggest using PolicyTech, a BOX portal or google sheet for these documents.

The web team may require a Contact be posted for accessibility assistance. This sends a negative message about YSM’s commitment to diversity and accessibility.

Case Studies

  • Handbooks for programs – These documents contain descriptions of programs, curriculums, faculty listings, student profiles. All of this material should be built on the web rendering the document redundant. Such documents should not be posted just because they were prepared for presentations. Think web first, as it is the point of entry for prospective students and trainees and where they will easily return. There is no reason to not make web pages the basis of presentation thus reducing version control errors and staff maintenance time.
  • Reports – Annual reports and research reports can often be displayed using html pages and news listings curated by a private keyword for the project.
  • Clinical Trial advertising flyers should be replaced by the Clinical trials highlight or listings on our webpages.

If PDFs are accepted for posting they must meet ADA requirements and the stakeholder is responsible for providing the documents in tagged format.

Submitted by Denise Meyer on June 15, 2023