Danny Bluestone, CEO of UX-driven digital transformation agency Cyber-Duck, highlights some key considerations for web designers and content producers after the UK government updated its content design guidance for open formats.

On the 7th December 2020, the UK government updated its content design guidance for open formats. The update has underlined its commitment to open standards and clearly mandated GOV.UK publishers to provide accessible alternatives to PDFs.

The guidance now states, “If you publish a PDF or other non-HTML document without an accessible version, you may be breaking the law.”

This is big news for content designers and has been lauded by accessibility advocates.

It also sets a precedent that has significant ramifications for anyone managing large, content-heavy websites. As the government steps away from PDFs, pressure will grow on all companies to ensure that their content is also presented in ways that are accessible to all users.

The battle to persuade organisations to ditch PDFs, which are typically less accessible than their HTML or open document equivalents, has been a long one. PDFs are quick to produce, easy to upload and have long been seen as a shortcut to digital publishing. But they’re hard – sometimes impossible – for some to read. As Neil Williams, then-head of GOV.UK, wrote in 2018, “PDFs can often be bad for accessibility and rarely comply with open standards.” Williams highlighted several problems with PDFs, including:

  • They’re not responsive
  • They’re not designed to be read on-screen
  • They can be difficult to navigate, especially for users with accessibility needs
  • It’s tricky to change their colour schemes and text size, which some users with visual impairments need to do
  • They’re harder to maintain, and so easily become out of date

These problems make PDFs a poor choice for content that’s designed to be consumed online, especially for users with visual accessibility needs. That’s why accessibility campaigners have pushed the government for years to step away from them, and that’s why they’re celebrating victory at last.

Here are some key considerations that UX/website designers, content producers, government agencies and brands needs to consider:

1. This was always going to happen

Yes, this is a big step and yes, it’ll be an extremely heavy lift for some organisations and branches of government with tens of thousands of PDFs. But at last the guidance is unequivocal. Government departments that have – often understandably – dragged their feet will now need to adapt. If information is worth publishing, it’s worth publishing in a format that all users can access.

2. But it’s going to take time

There are hundreds of thousands of PDFs on government and government-related websites and they’re still being published. All that content will need to be rethought and restructured in HTML or equally accessible formats. This isn’t a change that can happen overnight.

3. This is not the death of the PDF

PDFs were never a great format for digital content. But they have a valuable role for users who like or need to print, and in making print-first content available online. So they’re not going away. Their use just needs to be considered with care and they’ll need web-friendly (i.e. HTML or open format) alternatives.

4. It’s a boost for accessibility in general

The decline of PDFs has been signalled for well over a decade. We’re seeing real progress in accessible content. This decision will remind content designers, digital strategists and coders that what’s being signalled or encouraged now may well become mandatory in the future.

5. Accessible content is better for everyone

People who use screen readers will be breathing a huge sigh of relief at this news. But how many of us have wrestled with a 100-page PDF to try to find the paragraph we need? Or struggled to zoom in and out of a PDF in order to read its beautiful but tiny font? Accessible design is good design. This move should make content better for everyone.

6. It’s another step towards accessibility by design

Accessibility can only be truly reached when it’s built into the design process from the start. By removing the option to dump legacy documents online as PDFs, the government is pushing organisations to plan their content migrations properly, from the start. And that’s great.

So what do we do now?

Well, if you’re a large government organisation or a public body entity, you’ll need to start planning to reduce your dependency on PDF content. A content audit is a good place to begin. (N.B. PDF content is often neglected, so this is a good opportunity to check it’s up to date, too.)

Then you’ve got an opportunity to redesign your content in a user-centred way. Listen to their needs, invite them to review your information architecture, ask them to test your content, and watch what works best for them. It might be that some still want the option to print, but others need an easily navigable HTML version.

Finally, you can decide what to keep, update or delete, then migrate your content and present it in a way that’s tailored for your users.

The task ahead is big. But if digital publishers across GOV.UK and beyond pull together, there is the opportunity to minimise inaccessible content, ensure there are accessible alternatives, and ultimately, make our part of the internet a more welcoming, inclusive place.

User Experience and Interaction Design for Mobile and Web