Content style guide - PDFs

Wherever possible, we avoid PDFs. Instead we create content as structured web pages in HTML.

The problem with PDFs

We avoid PDFs because:

  • they cannot meet the range of users' accessibility needs, for example, users cannot change colours or font size
  • they give people a poor user experience, especially on mobile
  • many browsers, tools and extensions do not work with them - they often have problems with zoom, scroll, audio, image and keyboard navigation
  • they take users away from the website, opening in a new tab, window or software - and not all users have the right software
  • they are hard to maintain and update, so users may get out of date and unreliable content
  • if users find PDFs in search results, they get them without any supporting context or material
  • search engines do not rank PDFs high in search results
  • it's difficult to collect data on how people use PDFs, and that makes it difficult to identify problems and improve them

Publishing PDFs with an HTML version

In a few cases, where there is a clear, evidenced user need for it, we publish a PDF. But, as far as possible, we also make the same content available as HTML web pages.

The instances where we may publish a PDF (as well as a web page) are:

  • for niche audiences, where there is a clear user need for special formats (like Easy Read or foreign language leaflets designed to be printed out)
  • for other downloads designed for printing, such as posters
  • downloads of reports or publications designed to be published on paper
  • where there's a legal or regulatory requirement to have a formal, signed document
  • to preserve a permanent record for the future

If you do create a new PDF, it must meet the PDF/A standard. (Follow the GOV.UK guidance on publishing accessible documents.)

Older PDFs

Teams should make sure that:

  • they keep their content up to date
  • they replace old PDFs with an HTML page or an accessible PDF, or they delete them

Linking to PDFs

It's better to link to HTML pages containing PDF content rather than to PDFs themselves. This makes it easier for users to find the latest information.

Read more about how to handle links, including linking to PDFs.

Get in touch

If you’ve got a question about the NHS digital service manual or want to feedback, get in touch.

Updated: November 2019