An expressive oil painting of a user frustrated with their mobile device

Inaccessible and useless on mobile devices – flipbook PDFs in a nutshell

Back in 2012 we helped a university client design and produce a printed prospectus. We were asked as part of the project to provide a PDF version of the design file to be made available as a download on the institution’s website. We explained that this was a bad idea. That the experience for users would be awful. And that there were better options available. 

We were perhaps a little early to the party, and as a result, the conversation didn’t progress. We watched on disappointed, and a little frustrated as a PDF export of our design file became the ‘digital version’ of the prospectus.

More than a decade on and the number of flipbook prospectuses has continued to grow, as has our frustration and disappointment! We can think of a whole bunch of reasons why you should avoid flipbook pdfs, but here’s just a couple for now:

An awful experience on mobile devices

We often describe flipbook pdfs as a broken metaphor. An attempt to recreate a physical experience in an online environment. But the same rules don’t apply to both. The result is an ineffective, sometimes painful experience on desktop and tablet devices, and a simply unusable one on mobile devices. Don’t take our word for it though, check out the video below. Or better still, try to navigate through your own prospectus on a mobile device.

Over the decade since our failed attempt to get our client to consider alternative routes to a pdf, the prevalence of smartphones has exploded. A survey by Uswitch in 2021 found that 96% of 16-24 year olds owned a smartphone.  As a result online tools have had to evolve to offer mobile-optimised experiences. But by some sort of miracle,  flipbook PDFs have escaped this evolution. And yet their adoption is as high as ever.

We almost always see mobile usage of 50%+ for the university and college sites we create. Which means it’s likely that more than half of your users are accessing your prospectus on their smartphone. In 2022 we think it’s time to start offering mobile users an experience that exceeds the offline experience.

A prospectus experience suitable for all

In September 2018 new regulations were brought into force for all public sector websites. In line with those regulations, college and university websites are required by law to meet accessibility standards. 

Bad news for those of you with PDF prospectuses. By default, these are not accessible. So if you upload them to your website, you’re in breach of regulations. Yes, there are steps you can take to make pdfs accessible, but they’re a bit of a pain, and from what we’ve seen, not many institutions are taking those steps. 

And for those of you with an Issuu prospectus, the news is no better. Issuu embeds are not accessible. And even if they were, you’d have to ensure the PDF you were uploading was also accessible first – it won’t do the hard work for you.

We think you and your prospects deserve a digital-first prospectus fit for 2023. But we’re yet to come across anything that fits the bill. So we went and built it. Prospectus+ was born out of our frustration with these outdated, inaccessible and unusable alternatives, and we think we’re onto something good.

Nathan Monk
Nathan Monk

I'm proud to work for some of the world’s most influential brands that shape cities and define lives: Universities and colleges.

I provide advice to forward-thinking senior leaders on how to exceed their organisational targets by creating user-focused, digital-first strategies.

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