3.04 Document creation

Word vs PDF vs Google Docs

Key Concept: Heading styles create accessible Word files, PDFs and Google Docs

The three most common formats of document are Microsoft Word, PDF and Google Docs. This page explores the benefits and constraints of each.

Common principles


Structuring documents using headings provides readers with an outline of the content, identifies key points and increases the technical accessibility of the document. Heading styles include hidden metadata about the structure of the document which can produce tables of contents automatically and navigation anchors for screen-reader users.

Headings should be structured based on a hierarchy: Heading 1 is the most important, followed by Heading 2, Heading 3, etc. You can have multiple Heading 2 under a Heading 1. However, you should not go from Heading 1 to Heading 3 without an intermediary Heading 2. Headings provide visual styles too, these can be changed in Word, but it is important to recognise headings as structural, not design. The video below explores the role of headings in more detail.


Colour should not be the only method used to convey information. You should also print preview the document in black and white to ensure any colour images/charts are still able to be interpreted when viewed greyscale.


Images should have captions, and if not described within the main text of the document should be described using the ‘Alt Text’ description within the image properties. Images that have been copied into your document may need resizing or compressing, if your document has a large file size when it is saved.

Font, size and spacing

To make your documents more accessible to users with specific disabilities, use a clear ‘sans-serif’ font such as Arial, Calibri or Helvetica in size 12pt or greater. Use left justification (not full justified text), with clear line spacing (1.5 or more) and double line spacing between paragraphs. Further advice from Disability Services.


  Good for Main limitations
Word document Can be downloaded and edited.Templates. Reading lists. Not always possible to open on mobile devices.
PDF Compatible across devices and operating systems. Most mobile devices don’t require additional software to open PDFs. Good annotation possibilities with Adobe Reader and other software. Cannot be edited without specialist software.
Google Docs Group work and ongoing/development documents.Collaborative and simultaneous editing. Controlled sharing/access. Limited functionality in comparison to Word. Internet access required to access current version of document (but with offline/download options).


Word documents are best when you want to provide maximum editing and functionality for students.

All Word documents should be created in .docx format, rather than .doc. Older versions of Word can open .docx files with the freely available extension provided by Microsoft. According to Microsoft, .docx files tend to be smaller and less prone to corruption than the .doc format. Students do not need Microsoft Office to view .docx files, and can download the free Microsoft Viewer or use other office packages such as OpenOffice or Google Docs. It is worth noting that Office365 is available to all students for free through the University.

Word documents are not as accessible as PDFs for some screen-reading software.


PDFs are the most portable of the document formats, capable of being opened on practically any device. PDFs can be highlighted, annotated and drawn upon if viewed within an appropriate piece of software (for example Adobe Reader). PDF text cannot be edited easily and text cannot be added in a practical way. Content can be copied from a PDF, either by selecting text or images, or through the use of screenshot functionality (see Sourcing Images in Section 3.3).

PDFs created using photocopiers do not create accessible documents as the PDFs are simply images rather than true digital text. PDFs created through scanning documents must be made accessible before being provided to students.

Word documents that are saved as PDF files will need to be saved with the accessibility options checked.

Google Docs

Google Docs should be used where you are looking for collaboration, group commenting and a document that may evolve over time but need to be linked from one place. Google Docs are not files in the traditional sense, they exist only online. Whilst you can export Google Docs as Word files or PDFs, the exports represent a snapshot in time of that Google Doc. Google Docs are always current, keep a history of edits and hence avoid some of the problems of multiple versions of files getting muddled. You can also control who can view, comment and edit on a Google Doc.

The SlideShare below outlines the key differences between Google Docs and usual files.



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