From 2003: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/pdf-unfit-for-human-consumption/

PDF is good for printing, but that's it. Don't use it for online presentation.

Since then more and more devices can handle reading and outputting PDFs, but have things changed considerably with respect to the usability / UX of PDFs? Have there been any recent studies on what users think of PDFs?

What is the general rule of thumb for when something should be in PDF format versus HTML?

Benefits of PDFs

  • Good for maintaining a precise formatting (for printing)
  • Can be easily saved/copied/etc because it's in one file


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    Cons: larger file size which makes downloading to mobile devices slow and costly to data plan caps; when a user is pointed to a PDF via search, the user has to repeat the search within the document to find out what page within the PDF the relevant content is on; user's can't bookmark specific pages of a PDF to come back to later or share with others... – Charles Wesley Apr 20 '15 at 22:37
  • Also a con is that while most devices can open PDFs now, image-laden PDF are typically sizable on RAM. The format optimizes for printing, so the images are usually the most high-res possible (as opposed to being optimized for web). – jonvyltra Jun 1 at 11:09

Along with the pro's you mentioned, here are some more

  1. PDF's enable offline access to secured content
  2. PDF's can be used for forms which can be filled offline (e.g. i-9 ) which are required to be in a specific format.

With regards to cons, here are the obvious ones

  1. Some PDF's can be very large which use up the users data or delay him considerably
  2. PDF's are often not formatted correctly for all form factors making it hard for users to read them across multiple form factors
  3. Most PDF documents which are created are not accessible (Note: they can be made accessible )
  4. Users cannot interact with the content generally

This article provides some good inputs on when to use PDF's and how to optimize them for web based delivery.

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.

Make the font legible in PDF's

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.

With regards to linking it on the web, this is what the site has to say

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.

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    #2 is rarely a benefit in the real world mainly because most all PDF forms are just terribly implemented. :) – DA01 Apr 21 '15 at 1:53
  • Also webpages can have offline support: save the values into localStorage and the send to back to a server once a connection becomes available. – Luke Apr 21 '15 at 2:46
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    I think you missed the biggest con: Without a PDF viewer integrated in the browser (i.e. on ALL mobile devices), using a PDF severely disrupts your workflow. – MrLemon Apr 21 '15 at 10:28
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    PDFs take more time to be updated and, if downloaded by the user, can't be updated at all. – Rob Apr 21 '15 at 11:43
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    Not sure I follow, but broadly speaking, one could argue most of the web is forms based on some level. – DA01 Apr 21 '15 at 18:03

Good for maintaining a precise formatting (for printing)

That's really the sole benefit online. And is really what PDFs were designed for in the first place. Alas, that's usually not a major benefit in general if the goal is to disseminate information online.

Can be easily saved/copied/etc because it's in one file

True, though it's fairly easy to save it as a PDF out of your browser even if it's HTML to begin with.

Personally, if there is a long established print-based workflow in place, maybe PDFs make a lot of sense for that particular solution, but in general, content should be in the native medium and on a web page, that should be HTML whenever possible.

If it must be a PDF, go out of your way to ensure that the PDF is accessible. The #1 problem I run into with most any PDF produced by a company is that they have failed to implement a workflow that ensures the PDFs are properly marked up to be accessible.

  • "it's fairly easy to save it as a PDF out of your browser" -- Only with Chrome I think? and it's in the Print section, which probably keeps it hidden from a lot of people. – Luke Apr 21 '15 at 2:42
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    @Luke on OSX, you can save it out in any software as a PDF. On WIndows, I think you're right...you may have to have something installed. On my PC, it's an option in all browsers, but I don't know if that's due to office or what. – DA01 Apr 21 '15 at 2:45
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    All this talk about PDF and nobody mention HTML? It basically does everything PDF does, depending on the CSS and fonts available, although the general serif and sans-serif distinctions should be more than adequate for simple, professional documents. Plus, its source can be edited and you don't need to spend hours in overly complex applications like InDesign just to make the simplest changes. – Mark Boulder Oct 8 '15 at 13:33
  • With all due respect, HTML (even HTML5) simply does not everything PDF does. In particular, HTML is not self-contained, but requires a whole zoo of additional files. Also, HTML does not ensure integrity of contents nor integrity of presentation. HTML does have a reason to be in cases where neither of those integrities nor the self-containedness matters. That would be for simplistic presentation of information, without being legally binding, for example. – Max Wyss Oct 8 '15 at 15:07
  • @MaxWyss there's nothing legal or not legal about HTML vs. PDF--other than the legal system is still woefully behind the times and still prefers paper. I have to side with Mark, HTML is preferred most of the time over PDF--except, as you state, when for whatever reason, it has to act like a printed piece. – DA01 Oct 8 '15 at 17:56

That NNGroup article was, even back then, completely outdated and rather uninformed … HTML über alles.

The biggest Pros of PDF are:

• the integrity of contents: all needed resources are part of the document, and the integrity can be assured by applying a digital signature to the document.

• the integrity of presentation: the way the document appears is an important part of the document.

• the most compact form of a document with all its resources: there are file formats which lead to smaller file sizes, but they miss necessary resources, which are assumed to be on the viewer's device.

• allows for vector graphics with their superior quality.

• an easy, fast and cost efficient way to create (lightweight) applications. The user interface can be developed independently of the logic, and it does not need to be coded.

• it is an ISO standard

• archival quality (if the document follows the PDF/A subset of the ISO standard).

• works off-line; no dependency on a continuous internet connection.

  • 2
    I think many of your arguments are equivalent to my "it's in one file" point. Assuming you have all the dependent files for a webpage (or use something like MHTML or SingleFile), it also works offline and can be archived. HTML also allows for vector graphics, and is also an ISO standard. – Luke Apr 21 '15 at 15:29
  • All this talk about PDF and nobody mention HTML? It basically does everything PDF does, depending on the CSS and fonts available, although the general serif and sans-serif distinctions should be more than adequate for simple, professional documents. Plus, its source can be edited and you don't need to spend hours in overly complex applications like InDesign just to make the simplest changes. – Mark Boulder Oct 8 '15 at 13:33
  • SVG is supported in HTML, so vector graphics isn't anything unique to PDFs. HTML can work just fine offline. There are good points in here, but they aren't all unique to a PDF. – DA01 Oct 9 '15 at 4:07

I recently stumbled upon https://github.com/cognitom/paper-css because I needed to write a business plan.

Having written business plans in Adobe InDesign before, despite it being a beautiful app and all, it's terribly complicated and a lot of the solutions to get the layout you need is simply too time-consuming and doesn't make any sense.

My personal opinion is that PDF is becoming increasingly obsolete while HTML/CSS/SVG is slowly taking over print industry.


Advantage of pdf: I have control over how the finished product looks.

I like to think that its important to have control over the format and placement of graphic elements on the page. The design that has integrity, and is better suited to 'long form' articles that aren't just quick web snippets.


Your web page is dependent on the os/browser/screen your visitor has. If they don't support a certain CSS, Javascript or HTML version, your web page can be very disfigured.

PDF stands for "portable document format" which is focused on being OS/reader/screen independent. You will always be sure that your visitor has the correct information/layout when reading a pdf.

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