Every once in a while, I come across a business requirement asking me to force a PDF document to be downloaded from a website instead of opened in the user's browser. While I question this every time since it is forcing the user to do more work to read the content, it's a small tweak to the site to implement and thus usually does get implemented.

Looking around online, I cannot find anyone who has done any studies (quantitative or qualitative) with regards to if this practice should be done. Almost all content I found online focuses on the "same tab/different tab" debate.

While I know exceptions always exist, does anyone have any insight for if it's a good practice to force a user to download a PDF file instead of letting it open in their browser (or whatever default the user has)?

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    Very often opening in a browser has poorer performance than in a dedicated reader - especially for large documents. Just a factor to keep in mind.
    – JohnGB
    Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 21:07
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    Forcing a user to do download it, when we are used to open documents directly in the browser, is not a good practice for sure. Forcing a user is not a good practice, guiding a user is a good practice.I'd like to argue with anyone telling me that it's better if I download the document and only after I can view it... Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 21:13
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    @Toni Toni Chopper Not sure what you're getting at - I don't think the real problem is between "forcing" and "guiding". The real issue is a design choice between giving the user options or eliminating those options. Often the best design choice is the one that eliminates options for the user Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 23:35
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    A very good question. I don't know of any research myself but intuition says allowing the user to view the document in browser is the best option as it reduces user involvement. Quite often a user will be required to view a pdf in search of information that may or may not be within, it's a pretty poor experience if a user is to download multiple documents when these may be of no use. - obviously I realise there are exceptions to the rule (as stated above). Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 0:19
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    I think it's fair to assume that some people will always prefer to view it in the browser, and some will always prefer to download, so to accomodate both, ideally you let them make the decision (and just provide the link).
    – DA01
    Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 7:06

13 Answers 13


Taken from the NielsonNorman website:

It seems that if you have a PDF you want the user to see, make it downloadable - Don't make them view it in the brower, especially if it's a large size.

Forcing users to browse PDF files makes usability approximately 300% worse compared to HTML pages. Only use PDF for documents that users are likely to print.

This is my rough estimate, based on watching users perform similar tasks on a variety of sites that used either PDF or regular Web pages. Because I have not performed a detailed measurement study of PDF on its own, I can't calculate the precise usability degradation. However, whether the true number is 280% or 320%, one thing is certain: the number is big and reflects significant user suffering in terms of increased task time and more frequent failures.

The issue of users scanning the screen instead of reading all of it's contents is also a factor when deciding to display PDF's.

Nielson also tells how PDF's have also been known to crash user's computers.

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    I think that what you quote here has more to do with the choice of content in a pdf versus content as a normal page and not so much with the choice of viewing a pdf in browser versus having to download it first. Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 6:40
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    While you can 'force' a user to view it in a browser by embedding it in a web page, the OP wasn't suggesting that. Rather, just linking to the PDF (which may open it in the, but certainly wouldn't force it to open in the browser).
    – DA01
    Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 7:10
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    Also note the 'crash computer' comment was written in 2001. It may not have as much validity 12 years later.
    – DA01
    Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 7:11
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    This is indeed very old. PDF readers now offer quite some navigational features. The main point to take from that article is that content in a PDF is not a substitute for content in a website or other screen-centric medium. This is still an important point because I see a lot of people trying to deliver content to visitors with PDF because that's what they have and it's easy to just upload the file. But it's not very helpful point if what you need to do is deliver a PDF to a visitor of your website. Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 18:37

The question you should be asking is what is so different about your PDF's that they should be treated differently than other PDF's? Since a PDF can be anything, yours are not special.

What is breaking the user experience of browsing the web these days, is that many websites treat links differently. There is nothing for the user to learn, there is no mental model to be built, from the user's perspective what happens when you click on any link is completely random. One reason for this is that people let their personal preference get in the way of designing a proper interface. I see lots of people that prefer PDF's to be downloaded and make that the rule for other people regardless of what they think. I've had many clients request that links to anything but their website is opened in a new window, but if you fear losing visitors taking them hostage is not the answer.

The only way we can make people experience a sense of autonomy and control when browsing the web is to stop customizing what clicking a link does. For your visitor, your website is just like any other website. Please just let them use, and learn to use, the control that is already at their disposal. Right click in any browser allows you to download a PDF instead of opening it (that is, unless you broke the behavior of the link). Any PDF viewer in the browser has a quick "download me" button. While Nielsen and Norman are probably right, it should be interpreted as aimed at builders of browsers and PDF readers, not at individual website developers.

A bit of personal perspective. If you're doing a literature study that involves looking through dozens and dozens of research papers, the last thing you want to have to do is to keep track of your browser, your downloads, and your PDF viewer. If you're unsure the PDF has what you're looking for it's much much easier to view the PDF in the browser, have a peek, hit the back button. If you need to recall it it's in your browser history, if you don't it's gone. If you downloaded it, you'd need to wait for the download, find it in either the download manager or Windows Explorer, then open it in a reader. If you find you don't need it, you need to close it, delete it, find your way back to your browser.

Literature research made me love the browser-PDF integration. Entire populations depend on it, don't break it.

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    +1 I first like to look at the PDF before I save it to disk. Direct downloads would force me to find the right file to remove, much more complicated than the extra click or keystroke to save from a browser tab.
    – Hbar
    Commented May 13, 2013 at 18:04
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    Amen on not customizing links. Users can decide client-side how they want their browser to handle PDFs. Don't make (or worse, unmake) the decision for me. Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 11:30
  • I came here exactly looking for a way to unforce download of pdfs. I have a page with 20 something pdfs I need to scan to find the right one. No idea why some designer/business person has decided I can't open them in tabs. Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 12:13

Firstly, you can (and should?) always give the user autonomy. You can ask the user if he wants to open the pdf in a new tab or download and open the pdf with a preferred application. This is also in line with the UX guideline that the user should always feel in control.

And on the point of opening the pdf in a new tab, here are some guidelines as to make that experience better.

Nielsen 2005: Open New Windows for PDF and other Non-Web Documents

When using PC-native file formats such as PDF or spreadsheets, users feel like they're interacting with a PC application. Because users are no longer browsing a website, they shouldn't be given a browser UI.

Because users frequently close document windows, the best guidelines for linking to non-Web documents are:

  • Open non-Web documents in a new browser window .
  • Warn users in advance that a new window will appear.
  • Remove the browser chrome (such as the Back button) from the new window.
  • Best of all, prevent the browser from opening the document in the first place. Instead offer users the choice to save the file on their harddisk or to open it in its native application (Adobe Reader for PDF, PowerPoint for slides, etc.). Unfortunately, doing so requires a bit of technical trickery: you have to add an extra HTTP header to the transmission of the offending file. The header line to be added is " Content-disposition: Attachment ". If possible, also add " ; filename=somefile.pdf " at the end of this line, to give the browser an explicit filename if the user chooses to save the file. (I thank Sybren Stüvel for providing this code.)

In my experience, it depends what the PDF is, and why there's a link to it.

If the PDF contains information they need, then (assuming you can't get that info into a regular page, which should always be Plan A) allowing the user to browse the PDF is probably best; users rarely want to take up hard drive space with a PDF when they just need to open it, read out a little info, and move on.

However, if the PDF is a submission or document of some kind, and it's the document itself that's the point then it makes more sense to go straight to download. This is the case on sites like arXiv that act as document repositories, or in situations where the user wants the document to save or send rather than to read (at least immediately).

For example, I worked on a data collection webservice project not too long ago in which the completed forms could be exported as documents, so we displayed the form in HTML, and the "export" button triggered a direct download. Sending the user to view the PDF first breaks their workflow in situations like this; they can see the info on the page, so they don't need to see it again as a PDF (which will take time to load, depending on how snappy your browser's PDF handling is). When in doubt, provide both options as separate buttons or in a dropdown, so the user can decide for themselves whether they want to read the PDF or just download it.


There are some situations when opening a pdf in browser is undesirable because it will break some of the functionality built into the pdf. For example your pdf may contain built-in scripts that will be ignored by a browser plugin, or maybe your pdf needs to use advanced features of Acrobat Reader. If (and only if) this is your case, then forcing your users to download is a good idea — otherwise they may think your document is simply broken.

If through user behavior research you find that the users of your website prefer to save their pdf documents for later reading (for example, you might be running an online library of some kind), then it might be a good idea to force download. However the number of users who prefer downloading should considerably outweigh the other group, otherwise it's not worth it breaking the default functionality.

I do not know of any other compelling reason to force users to download the content; however as this is your business requirement it might be worth asking if there is a reason for this requirement. Maybe there is. However if they want to implement it "just because", then it's probably not worth it breaking the standard expected behavior.

  • Not a suggestion on why it is a good idea, but lots of reasons to avoid it! Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 0:37
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    But there's also no guarantee your end users would be using Acrobat Reader (aside from locked down intranets, where perhaps this would be a valid situation for forcing the download...)
    – DA01
    Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 7:08

Disagree with Nielson. PDFs should open in browser first. Users are wary of downloading viruses. They don't want to populate their hard drive with unnecessary files. Browser first, they can download it from there if they choose.

  • Surely opening it in the browser is already downloading it.
    – Eoin
    Commented Mar 23, 2022 at 20:42

I would also question the requirement to automatically download a pdf, but outside of usability issues there are security risks. Google must also have these concerns, because as of last fall they enacted a Chrome Canary channel that will open up pdfs in the Chrome browser bypassing your Adobe or Foxit Reader apps.



I am a UX designer dealing with this issue. Our problem is that we have many fillable PDF forms on our site, and our users click on the form link and fill details out in the browser. Browsers don't really support JavaScript in PDF files, so if clicking to view information at another web page or a payment page link from the PDF for example, this link cannot be opened in another window, therefore the user loses all information already entered once returning back from their payment etc. We want our users to download the form before filling out, because they are losing their information when using browsers.


I'm not sure that it is even possible to force a download.

I have never tried to implement this solution, and I'm not sure it is completely possible for all platforms. I always let it do what it did, and did not say or imply in the interface it'll download (just indicate it's a PDF and not a link) since so many browsers will view automatically now.

It might be a good idea to ask if it HAS to be a PDF. I've noticed that it is increasingly possible to get organizations (large and small) to get with the times and convert to HTML (or another format) instead.

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    The most common situation for me has been PDFs being requested to be download-only. They CAN be forced by adding a header value at the server level, which means you can't just do a simple link to a pdf file. Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 21:09
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    Hi @user1720871. Welcome to the UX SE. Your answer doesn't really answer the question, but just asks for clarification. Maybe it might work better as a comment instead? Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 21:52
  • @3nafish: your statement is good guidance, but this user can't comment yet. You need 50 rep to be able to do so. Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 6:43

If possible it's always best to give the users different options. However, allowing them to have a look before downloading the file, it will allow the user to see if the document would be useful. It is a good user experience to allow them to open it in the browser, read the table of contents and then evaluate if it's worth downloading it. Users will not want to download documents that you might not want to use.

It would be important to evaluate in a case to case basis what's the use of the PDF. If it's a known document or a purchase or like a research paper that not many people have seen and they would like to have a quick look first.

The other important aspect is the size. If you are working with large PDFs that the person is likely to read afterwards or print it out.


Nobody here mentioned protected PDFs. Forcing a download might be convenient because saved locally the PDF will most likely keep its security level while browser viewers ignore all protection settings within a PDF file.


Usability is in the eye of the beholder. I think the answer to your question depends on the target audience and what they're used to or comfortable with. For your application, I would try to steer away from assuming anything and only make decisions based on usability testing with your target audience.

That said, I bet we can all agree that users generally do not like surprises. If the link to the PDF does something that I don't expect it to, then I lose trust. Whether or not the link will download a PDF or open it inside the browser, I'd like to be very aware ahead of time of what's going to happen if I click any given link.

Here's some feedback from my own individual personal experience with PDF links.

  • If your PDF is a large file, the LAST thing I'd want to do is open it in a browser. I find opening large PDF's in a web browser to be an especially unreliable task. Often my whole browser will freeze up or become unresponsive when I try this.
  • I like seeing the file-size listed next to the link so that I know if it's going to take a long time to download the thing. It's disappointing to find out that your PDF was 50MB large only after clicking the link.
  • Depending on the OS, browser, and addons being used, opening PDF's (even small ones) in the web browser is a lot more unreliable than just downloading it.
  • If you give me the option to preview a large PDF file in the web browser but don't have an option listed to download, I might try and preview it just to see if I can instead of doing a right click -> save as. And if/when it doesn't work and crashing my browser, then I lose trust in your page for not knowing what was best for me.

I think a standard fair implementation of PDF linking would include the following:

  • download button that actually works as a download button and doesn't open the pdf in a new tab or anything that I don't expect it to do
  • title of pdf as a link to the pdf such that if I click the link it'll open in a web browser/tab
  • size of pdf shown somewhere
  • date the pdf was last updated shown somewhere

However, reliability is usually something a business entity would strive for so it makes sense to only allow users to download. Downloading, in my experience, is leaps and bounds more reliable than opening a PDF in a web browser. So maybe that's the thinking behind their decision.

Still, I'm sure there are stylish ways to implement PDF's for specific groups of customers.

Example 1: in-page preview

You could have an image preview of the first page that could serve as a link to opening the PDF in a frame instead of a new tab. In this way, you don't have to worry about sending the user to a new tab or a new browser. It's sort of like how amazon does with "look inside" kindle ebooks, or google books, or image galleries in general.

Example 2: screenshot preview with download option

You could have one or several small screenshots, and no preview/open-in-browser option, from the PDF to give the user some brief visual explanation of what they're about to get if they decide to press the download button.


Latest Browser supports Force Downloads.

You can try adding "Download" attribute to your link as below

<a href="path/to/file.pdf" download>Download PDF</a>

P.S : This is only works in mordern browsers, also the same works for images too..

Reference : http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2013/04/how-to-use-the-download-attribute/

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    The question is more on the usability and behavioral implications of forcing a download vs letting the browser display it (or whatever the user has changed the default behavior to). This answer is more focused on how to force a download which is not what the question is inquiring about. They may have been better as a comment on @user1720871's answer instead. Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 13:58
  • In addition to everything @JamesEggers said, support for the HTML5 download attribute may not be widespread enough at the time of this writing. IE11 and Safari both lack support, so users of the most popular Windows and Mac browsers will not get the intended behavior. For more info: caniuse.com/#feat=download
    – DOOManiac
    Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 16:53

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