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How to Decide Between PDF vs. HTML for a Online Form

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If you find yourself having to decide between PDF vs. HTML for an online form… here’s some guidance to help you decide which path to take on a case-by-case basis.
Keep in mind that it’s totally fine to go one way on one form and another on the next, if need be. Of course in a perfect world every form would be available in any format. However when you need to be pragmatic… (in no particular order).

Choose PDF when…

  • the audience prefers PDF
  • it is easier for you to provide PDF in a format that includes everyone
  • people will want to Save As a copy locally, for their own reference
  • people will want to Save As a copy locally, for potentially future reuse (e.g. annually)
  • people will want to have the option of wet-filling (i.e with a pen, not a computer) all or part of the form
  • people will want to potentially print it out semi-filled to discuss with someone else before it gets sent
  • people will find it easier to fill the form if it looks more the printed copy they are familiar with from the past
  • the user and/or the person processing the form will be more comfortable with the graphic cliche of it looking more like a conventional form
  • regulations demand that the form have a presentation of a certain look (e.g. the tax code, or use of an existing form from a third-part insurance industry standard)
  • there is communications strategy value in the form having a locked-out graphic design consistency that cannot be altered by others
  • there is potential benefit in using any of Adobe’s workflow benefits for sending, tracking, capturing, and/or aggregating the data

Choose HTML when…

  • the audience prefers HTML
  • convenience for the audience (nothing to download, no reader to launch, potentially autofilled by browser or browser add-on, easier submission of the form, potentially partially autofilled from their “account” within an extranet)
  • it is easier for you to provide HTML in a format that includes everyone
  • your infrastructure is poised to more easily process the data from HTML rather than PDF
  • you intend to have a very immediate back-and-forth with the user (e.g. sending the tickets right away)
  • the audience is likely to be using mobile devices (where 8.5 x 11 forms generally do not work well!)
  • there is value in realtime validation of data against information only available online

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Reviewed May 10, 2019

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