Stop using PDF and MS-Word Forms



Look around the web, you’ll find them all over the place. MS-Word and PDF forms that you have to download and complete.  I would be forgiven for thinking that we have not progressed on the web since 1995.

I know I’m not perfect I have been party to this crime against UX as well.

We know they are bad, so why are we still using them.

Let’s Consider

You’re feel inspired to join a professional association.  The website seems pretty good, it lists all the benefits. There is a professional air about it.   You can see that some of your respected peers are already members.

The annual fees aren’t that much either, well within your budget.  You can see at a glance you’ll have no problem with your experience with the membership criteria.

The entire progression through the site has been seamless, almost as if the site was personally responding to your needs and wants alone. It’s been a pleasure considering joining this association.

So finally you press on the “Join Now” button.

The perfect reality is shattered. One brief sentence destroys it all –

“To Join simply download, complete and fax back to us the following PDF document”

This is not a little speed hump in the process.

Its a 10 foot wall!  This is a user experience disaster.

Completing a Form

Just consider what you have to do to complete the form:

  1. Often the PDF form can’t be filled out online, or it just doesn’t quite work right.
  2. Download the form.
  3. You print it off.
  4. Find a Pen, that works.
  5. Fill it in.
  6. Find a Fax machine or scan it.
  7. Fax it, ensuring the fax has been sent.
  8. Remember to collect your copy of the fax.

Yeap, it’s just way to hard.   Now consider, if we want people to complete the form why are we making it difficult.  Why indeed.


  • Sometimes we don’t want a Form online.

    Over the years I have run into a good number of  agencies and corporations who deliberately go out of their way to make it difficult to complete certain forms.  They rely on the fact people don’t like to fill in manual forms to restrict the number they get. In a way they are burying the form and the associated process online so you will not complete it.

  • Writing outside the fields

    A manual form can allow for those incidences that an online form designer didn’t consider.  You can write outside the fields, in the margins and the like.   You may have a small comment box online, but on a manual form it can be limitless.

  • Easier to update

    Sure, you just have to update the link for the downloadable form.  However what happens if you don’t have the master document. Do you have to build the form from scratch just for a “simple update”.

  • Easier to publish

    Yes the process of publishing a MS-Word or PDF form is an simple, one.  Just upload the form and link to it.   But consider the time taken building the form and getting it looking the way you want it.   These are the hidden costs.

  • No special software or skills required

    No special software is required.  Most businesses have a MS-Office installed. Hence building a form in MS-Word isn’t that greater task.   No real specialised skills like “web design” are required.  It doesn’t take that long to build them either as all the pesky interaction component has been removed.


  • People are lazy

    We known that people are naturally lazy, they aren’t going to want to fill in a manual form at all.   Maybe it reminds them of an endless victoria bureaucracy of hideous  forms.

  • Easy to add a CMS form

    With a lot of CMS these days there are modules or plugins that allow the admin person, with no special design skills, to easily put together a form.  These forms often have all the interactive elements such as error messaging and the like.   All they need is to be styled correctly in the first instance.  They also usually come with default styles anyway.

  • Electonic records

    Provision of an electronic record, whether or not it is in a database allows for easier access to the information, and an increase aspect of data manipulation now or in the future.

  • Data validation

    You can ensure with filters, and data validation that the data you get from an online form is pure and the best it can be.   This is very hard to do with a manual form.

  • No double entry

    It’s simple with a manual form you have to enter the data, manually type it into a computer system or at the very least scan it and use an OCR package on the result.   This all takes time and resources.   Also what do you do with that extra long comment that is too big to be collected and entered into the database.

  • Easy to development a custom form

    Years ago designing and developing a form for a developer was a long process.   But today with frameworks, form generators, specialised form tags and the like it is possible to build a form in a tenth of the time.   This really eliminates the complaint of it taking too long doesn’t it.

  • Cost effective user experience

    Overall if you look the process, sure building a PDF or MS-Word form may appear initially to be cost effective, but if you consider that it’s just not going to be what people are expecting.   You are going to loose potential transactions with an manual form.  They have started the process in the online world of the web, they expect to complete it there simply and efficiently.

Next time a client sends you a PDF form or worse a MS-Word document to be placed on a site as a form. Stop.

Have a chat with the client, discuss their real needs and the purpose of the form.   If they really honestly want people to complete the form then realistically it has to be online.

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  1. Gary

    I spoke to a ATO rep on the phone to ask whether the PDF form I faxed two weeks ago had been received.

    She said that there wasn’t any entry in my records that the ATO had received the form.

    However, she said, “This doesn’t mean that the form has not been received. It just means that maybe it hasn’t been entered into the system. However, I can’t tell you categorically that the form has or has not been received.”


    I wonder how much it would cost and what the long-term savings would be if the ATO deployed live web-forms instead of PDF forms?

  2. Jennifer Juergen

    We had all our PDF forms created at We haven’t sent or received a fax since, and the forms can be filled out and saved. Our clients are happy. Different forms technologies meet different needs. For us, PDF forms was the way to go.

  3. @jennifer – funny the issues with these types of PDF form Services is that it assumes you have the latest PDF reader. For instance I just get a blank page when I access their example forms.

    Then there is the Accessibility aspect. Professionally it would be just as easy to use a form builder CMS module to create your own web forms and not use a third party product that is going to block some potential clients.

    It comes down to testing with your audience.

  4. Nice Post Gary.

    This article is quite interesting. PDF’s I can let slide at some degree but MS-Docs, particularly the .docx formats, can not stand people using, it’s too proprietary to Microsoft.

    The use of the Pros and Con titles we’re a bit confusing but other than that, the article gets to the point fantastically well.

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