Not Another PDF

Recent User Testing

We’ve been doing some user testing. Showing Kiwis some of the ideas we might adopt as part of the redevelopment of newzealand.govt.nz.

Users were asked to carry out some tasks and then we showed them the forms they needed to complete what they had to do. Those forms were usually on an existing government website.

Again and again we heard Argh! Not another PDF—and that’s the clean version.

One person said, I don’t have a printer at home and I can’t print at work. I’d have to send this link to my niece and she’d print it out and post it back to me.

That’s not a wonderful user experience.

And let’s not even get started on PDF accessibility issues.

To make matters worse, government departments sometimes put PDFs up on our various sites but then don’t give any instructions on what to do with them. Can the user fill it in on the screen and then submit it online, or do they have to print it out, fill it in manually then phone or fax it back? Is it OK to scan the form after they’ve written on it and email it back?

Remember, a lot of people don’t have access to printers— they can’t print personal stuff at work and don’t have a printer at home.

Do you tell users what you expect them to do with the PDF forms on your website? Do you give an option to get a form printed off and sent to them? And if the form needs to be printed out do you have the address it’s to be sent to on the form? We saw people struggle with this in testing again and again: What am I suppose to do with this form now?

But They'll Know What to Do With it

I remember a few years ago working with a policy advisor to put a link to a PDF form onto a webpage. I thought it would be good to provide the address that the form was to be returned to. The conversation went as follows.

  1. Me: Where do they post this form to? I want to put the address on the page.
  2. Policy advisor: It’s on the form.
  3. Me: Where? I can’t see it.
  4. Policy advisor: Hold on… Oh, it’s not there. Oh, it’s on the contact page.
  5. Me: Where? I can’t see it there either.
  6. Policy advisor: Don’t worry, everyone knows where to send it.
  7. Me: How?
  8. Policy advisor: I’ll call you back.

About an hour later I got an email with the address. Turns out the department’s contact centre was getting hundreds of calls a month asking for the address. The department eventually redesigned the form to include the postal address.

Why Do We Use PDFs?

The purpose of putting PDFs onto government websites was convenience for users and to reduce printing and postage costs. But if these forms are generating calls from people asking to get a copy of the form or what to do with it, does it really benefit government?

Until we have fully integrated online services we need a way to address this issue. We know putting up the PDF form and walking away isn’t the answer anymore.

We need to start discussing what is. How do you manage your PDFs? Do you provide a way for users to request an alternative format?

And if you want to know what they really said about PDFs, buy me a coffee sometime and I’ll tell you.

4 comments

  1. Comment #1. Tony:

    Please be sure to send this out to the local and regional councils . . . if anything they are worse !

  2. Comment #2. Jared Bothwell:

    This may seem obvious but if you are looking for submissions or responses why not use an online form/survey tool?

    I also think the Adobe PDF tools can be blamed for a lot of the limitations with PDF’s. Nitro PDF reader works so much better.

  3. Comment #3. Alison Jack

    Tony – We’re actively sharing what we learn about other government agencies’ websites with the publishing agency, and this includes local government where appropriate. We’re also going to be publishing more results from our research on the web toolkit.

  4. Comment #4. Alison Jack

    Jared – Totally agree. Online forms and survey tools can be appropriate in some situations. They really work best when hooked into back office processes. Agencies need to pick the best tool that meets user and business needs.

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