I need to include links to PDFs, Word docs and other document types on a web page. A lot of sites display an icon for the file type, plus the file size. I'm inclined to remove both the icon and file size, on the basis that the icon complicates the page layout, and many web pages are larger than many PDFs, but they don't have a file size shown to the user.

Instead, my proposed default behaviour is to just have a regular link which opens the document type in a new window. The page copy could say "All documents are PDFs and open in a new window" or similar. Any thoughts on the merits/pitfalls of this approach, particularly in relation to mobile devices?

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    As long as you don't have any egregiously large file sizes, you could probably hide file size without negative consequences.
    – Taj Moore
    Dec 15, 2011 at 16:36
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    The key is to let people know it's not a web page. That way they have some control in deciding how they view it.
    – DA01
    Dec 16, 2011 at 19:46
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    There are some pretty huge distinctions in cold loading time across different PDF viewer browser plugins, and there are certainly users with no PDF viewer browser plugin. As a Mac user with Apple's Preview as my default PDF viewer, I don't mind opening a PDF. The person sitting next to me has Acrobat Pro as his default PDF viewer (which can take a minute or more to load fully). If you don't have a PDF plugin installed, you won't be able to manage open documents in tabs or windows in the browser. As a user, I'd prefer to know what I'm letting myself in for, even if I'm not paying full attention
    – Kit Grose
    Feb 27, 2012 at 23:24

3 Answers 3


I might chose NOT to open if I know the file size is beyond something. I might also similarly decide to open or not to open a link depending on the file type at times: for instance, if my Adobe Reader is currently not in place.

At other times, I would like to right click the link and save it for reference at a later time. Once again, I will decide on the basis of the file type and size.

This is purely a personal preference and I do not know how most others might do it.

  • I agree with your comments on file size to some extent. It might be optimal to only display the file size if it's over a couple of megabytes - so mobile readers know that the file they're downloading might impact their data allowance significantly.
    – Anonymous
    Dec 15, 2011 at 10:45
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    Not just data allowance, but data storage (eg for mobile, chromebook and the like). You can't only display the size if it's bigger than some limit YOU set. The point is that the user can see it's NOT bigger than some limit THEY set. It's up to each user to decide what is acceptable to them, not the website to decide for everyone. Dec 15, 2011 at 10:55
  • True. Although, given that Peter stated (in a comment on my answer) these documents are to support a pension application, it may be elderly people using the website. Who knows if they would even know what a kilobyte is?
    – Anonymous
    Dec 15, 2011 at 11:05
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    Point taken - although I think pensions should be started when you are younger, not older. If you apply for a pension when you're elderly - you've kind of missed the boat a bit :-) [of course it depends on what aspect of pension application this is - eg it could be pension credit, or pension withdrawal. Peter?] Dec 15, 2011 at 11:36
  • I think this has been over-complicated. I think right from finding out that they're forms (as described in the copy on the page) that the user can assume they won't be downloading full-resolution artwork for a billboard or the entire internet - it's just a form. :-D
    – Anonymous
    Dec 15, 2011 at 13:21

I consider using icons in this situation a good practice - it's faster to distinguish what a file type is from a PDF or Word icon than reading the file format in text. I may be alone in this, but if there was no icon present, I would hover over the link to see what the file extension is (.pdf/.doc).

I would only use text to specify file format if it was an uncommon format that people won't recognise the icon for, or I would group like file formats under a heading "PDF's" with the pdf icon next to it as below:


  • In the vast majority of cases the PDF's would be on a "Documents" page with copy to say they are PDF's - I agree icons help distinguish file types, but in this context (PDF documents to support a pension application) I'm not sure why users would care what the document format is?
    – Peter
    Dec 15, 2011 at 10:50
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    This is all contextual - you didn't say they were documents to support a pension application. However, my example may be more suited to situations where the same files are available in different formats...
    – Anonymous
    Dec 15, 2011 at 10:55
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    @Peter: Does the statement "PDF documents to support a pension application" appear somewhere prominently on the same page?
    – Kris
    Dec 15, 2011 at 11:33
  • Anonymous - apologies, should have given more context in my question. In most cases I'd expect to have a 'block' of links on a page which link to documents of the same type, so (partly in response to Kris) the statement "PDF documents, open in a new window" or similar could be used as copy on the page
    – Peter
    Dec 15, 2011 at 15:18

If you want the web page to be uncluttered you could display the link as you would do with a normal page url but the link directs the visitors to a specific download page where you could show more info about the file such as file type, size, how many pages, table of contents or what type of software and version you need to view it. Most of this info could be built into the CMS and thereby be autogenerated.

Even if a web page could be heavier than a pdf it could crash the browser, it takes time more time to start Adobe reader etc. If it is for example a .docx file format people with an older version of Word can't open it. You could then tip the visitors that they could download the Microsoft Compatibility Pack.

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