• led by the Digital Experience Team at Renfrewshire Council

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Why we no longer publish PDFs on the council’s websites

In order to comply with accessibility regulations and ensure people can easily find and use information on our digital channels like Renfrewshire.gov.uk, we’re moving away from PDFs. Here’s what you need to know.

What web accessibility is

These days more users rely on the internet and digital channels to access information – for government services, healthcare, education, employment, banking, retail, etc.

The role of web accessibility is to help everyone find and use digital channels and their content in the easiest and quickest way possible.

Web accessibility helps people with any permanent or temporary visual, auditory, or physical disabilities, as well as any other type of disability. It also benefits people without disabilities, such as people with a slow internet connection or people reading words on a small screen.

Web accessibility is the right thing to do – but it’s also the law.

As a local authority in the UK, web accessibility is a legal requirement we must meet. Our council websites, intranets, digital apps, and their content must meet the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018.

Any information or documents like PDFs you publish on the web, on behalf of your service or the council, must meet the accessibility regulations. If they don’t meet the regulations, you could be breaking the Equality Act 2010.

The problems with PDFs

PDFs (short for Portable Document Format) serve a purpose where something needs to be printed out such as a leaflet, stored on record like regulations or minutes, or referred to in a scenario where someone isn’t browsing the web such as a map or instruction sheet.

They are incredibly popular because they’re quick and easy to design. Like many other organisations, we’ve created a PDF dependence at Renfrewshire Council. We have thousands of them on Renfrewshire.gov.uk.

Sadly, PDFs degrade the user experience online. They create major problems around usability and accessibility. This is because they:

  • are not inherently accessible, which means they violate the accessibility regulations and Equality Act 2010 we’re legally required to meet
  • don’t work well with assistive technologies such as screen readers, which people with disabilities often use to navigate and read web content
  • don’t resize to fit users’ browsers, which means users do a lot of zooming in and out and scrolling
  • are difficult to load for users with slow internet connections
  • are difficult for some users to navigate and orientate themselves
  • are more likely to remain online once they’re out of date, which cause serious issues when people read outdated or incorrect information.

PDFs are unfit for the digital space and user consumption. They make our content and services harder to find, use and maintain. The Nielsen Norman Group, world leaders in user experience, advise to never use a PDF to display content that users need to read online. All UK national government websites are following this advice. Renfrewshire Council must too.

What the alternative is

We appreciate moving away from publishing PDFs online will be challenging. It means a fundamental shift in how we communicate with our local communities or colleagues, especially when publishing lengthy reports and legal information.

The alternative is to publish most content as web pages, also called HTML copy. The content you’re reading right now is in this format. Web pages are better because:

  • their content is in one place, which means our users don’t need to download a separate application to read something
  • they comply with the accessibility regulations
  • they are easier to navigate and can automatically link to related web pages
  • they are easier to use on mobile devices
  • they are quicker and easier to update and remove.

In most cases, you will need to publish the content as web pages rather than as PDFs, when of course there is a need to publish content online.

In some case, your information might not belong to any websites at all. We’re legally required to make certain documents publicly available upon request, but that doesn’t mean they have to be on a website. Check your legal requirements if they clearly say to publish information online.

And in rare cases, we will still publish PDFs on our digital channels, only to meet specific user needs or legal requirements.

When you can publish a PDF or other document type online

You can still commission visually appealing reports or other documents for your project or service, especially for print distribution. But if you want this information to go on one of the council digital channels like Renfrewshire.gov.uk, it most likely can’t be a PDF.

However, there are a few exceptions when you can publish online an accessible PDF or other document type. These exceptions include:

  • forms where a user needs to input information
  • structured data, for example spreadsheet or csv files
  • leaflets, posters, and signage for users to print out and use
  • technical detailed documents unlikely to change, such as planning drawings
  • maps that are not used for navigational purposes.

If a PDF or other file is published on our digital channels, the decision must be based on these and supported by evidence from user research. This makes sure our content is user-focused.

These exceptions must still ensure they comply with web accessibility regulations.

Help to make your content accessible online

You don’t have to do it alone. The council’s Digital Experience team helps services produce accessible, user-friendly content on Renfrewshire.gov.uk and other council channels.

If you’re concerned about how your service will adapt without relying on PDFs, or you would like digital advice on an upcoming project, get in touch using our online request form. This is where you can request any support from the Digital Experience team, including updating existing web pages, creating new pages, and ensuring your content and campaigns are accessible.

On The Thread, you can also find more information about creating accessible web pages on Renfrewshire.gov.uk and why all council employees share responsibility for web accessibility.

It may take a while to adapt to this new way of communicating. But by working together, we’ll ensure our digital content complies with accessibility regulations and is useful and helpful for everyone.

Philippe Fara
Philippe became Digital Experience Manager at Renfrewshire Council in 2019. His mission is to build a trustworthy, reliable and transparent digital experience for the Council.