Accessibility, Transparencies, and Archiving: The Top 3 Questions We Got Asked About at Xploration 2017

PDF discussions at Xploration 2017 centered around three challenging themes:

  • Accessibility
  • Transparencies
  • Archiving

It was a real pleasure attending Xplor 2017 because so many of our customers were in attendance. For me, this was a chance to add faces to the names that I talk to all the time. It was also apparent that PDF continues to be alive, well, and growing as a critical component of document-based systems.
PDF accessibility was one of the biggest document-related challenges at Xploration 2017, and that makes sense for a few reasons. PDF documents have been around for almost 20 years, and because of the uncontested universal acceptance in virtually every industry, the format is not going anywhere. Why is accessibility so important now? Maybe there is renewed interest in Section 508. From the GSA, to the VA, to state standards for procurement, PDF accessibility standards and guidance is everywhere. Checkout this checklist of requirements for PDF document accessibility that applies not only to the government, but also organizations that work with the government, like subcontractors.
Another reason for the interest is that PDFs are designed to be an accurate visual representation of paper documents. They are not designed to be accessible by default. This means that unless a document is created properly, it cannot be easily reflowed or processed by a screen reader for people with disabilities. There is no real barrier here; PDFs can, of course, be accessible, however, this must be a conscious decision in the document’s life cycle. This means it must be created with accessibility in mind so that it adheres to the PDF/UA specifications.
A less than ideal approach is to take existing PDFs and convert to accessible ones. The bulk of the work around creating accessible PDF documents revolves around defining structure for each document – we need to specify parts on the page such as headings, paragraphs, alternate text for images, etc. In most cases, this is easily done when a document is first created. At that point, we “know” what different parts of the document represent, and can simply re-create the structure in the new document. Converting an existing document to an accessible one is much more involved. We need to infer what each section of the document is, which can cause issues later. Furthermore, there are sections we simply can’t make automated decisions on – such as the description for images (alternate text). If you’re a company with a server full of pre-existing PDF documents, this is an incredible challenge.
At the show, many folks expressed concern over PDF Optimization and document flattening. If you want to deliver the best possible document experience to customers, optimizing documents prior to distribution is one way to do that. Optimization is a topic that I’ve discussed at length in some of my previous blogs. What is so special about optimization and transparencies, and why were they mentioned together at Xploration 2017? A lot of the companies at the exhibit create invoices, bills, statements and other customer communication materials in large volumes. Frequently, these materials contain multiple transparent layers, whether that’s been a conscious decision, or one that was a consequence of their design decisions is not always clear. Bottom line, statements with transparencies make their way to a customer. The advantage of transparencies is that documents can be smaller in size, since the actual transparency processing and rasterization happens on the user’s end. The big problem with transparencies is that they are not always processed the same depending on the software that the user employs. Transparencies can and should be pre-flattened in these cases, preferably by a piece of software that can reproduce the document’s colors and process all transparency types correctly. The resulting images can then be optimized to keep the file size down. This will ensure the best possible user experience.  I talk about transparencies at length in my whitepaper, you should check it out.
Once a document has been created, optimized and distributed to end users, it usually needs to be archived. This brings me to the third topic at Xploration 2017 – document archiving. There is a lot to be said about document archiving, and I will dive into the topic soon. However, when it comes to document archiving, PDF has many advantages over some of the other commonly used formats out there like image formats, HTML, Word and, of course, good old paper in a box archive. So, what are the distinct advantages of PDF, one might ask? PDF combines the best of two worlds when it comes to documents – it’s designed to look identical across platforms and viewing mechanisms, like image formats. But unlike image formats, it’s also searchable. In addition, PDF has a standard that specifically pertains to archiving. It’s an open ISO standard, and it’s designed specifically to outlive your archive.
None of the topics discussed at Xplor 2017 have an easy fix. Each requires a document life cycle discussion and workflow to make it happen successfully. So if you want to have a conversation, let’s get in touch.

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