Public information by PDF … fail

The Isle of Man is currently experiencing a minor water inconvenience due to the recent storms, resulting in water needing to be boiled for users’ assurance that it is safe to be used/consumed.

Cue panic. “Is it contaminated?”, “Are the schools open?”, “what about farmers?” are questions that have all been asked. The water authority posted information on their web-site, informed the Police and local radio stations to get the word out that there is a “boil water” notice for 48 hours. I believe they did everything they could have. Texts, tweets and the like have been flying round. Though typical Chinese whispers/incompetence resulted in terms like “raw water” being incorrectly understood as “raw sewage” and the Police stating water had been “contaminated”.

Except, that once again, the actual information for users is buried within a PDF. The whole Isle of Man Government web-site is just a thin layer over some sort of internal document library intranet. It is exceptionally poor in this regard.


So information that people need to know to understand how they can use their boiled/unboiled water is hidden inside a heavy document format that requires specialised reader software to download. Sure, PDFs are widely used and the “standard” for document publishing online, but why require users to:

  1. Click a link, then
  2. possibly have to download and install reader software, then
  3. navigate through more information to get to the important parts?

The government web-site is frequently guilty of this. Some people don’t want to click links, don’t want to have Adobe PDFs on their machines, are nervous when asked by their browser that access to their PDF software is required. It is a total usability fail and shows complete lack of care and attention that the information contained in the leaflet cannot be put on the original web-site. As I tweeted yesterday, putting public health information in a PDF is like sending SOS using Semaphore over Morse code.

In my opinion, PDFs are superfluous. They are useful to maintain formatting and perform form completion exercises, and nothing more. Of course, paper-copies of health information exist and this will also usefully be available in PDF form. But PDFs should support and complement existing hypertext, not form the only source of information.

I believe a new web-site is on the way. I hope new people behind the web-site are going to come with it.