Printing pains

What’s the problem with print?

Have you ever wanted to print a web page? How often do you find that what you have printed has a multi-coloured banner and navigation buttons or worse, text that disappears off the edge of your page?

Why does it occur to so few website designers and developers that you might want to print a page? After all, you might want to:

  • read an article away from the computer
  • show it to a friend
  • file it away for future reference.

What are the options?

There are a number of different ways to provide printer-friendly web pages:

  • style sheets
  • scripting
  • portable document format (PDF) files.

Style sheets

One option is style sheets. These take a little time and thought to set up, but almost no maintenance. The key is to build your site around valid HTML/XHTML and CSS: it’s then quite easy to have one style sheet which controls the appearance of files on screen and a second which controls the appearance of files sent to a printer. (You can also set up style sheets for mobile devices and screen readers, but that’s an article for another day.)

If you don’t want to print a page, find the Print Preview option on your browser and notice the difference between what you see in your browser and what will print. You can find examples at A list apart and456 Berea St.

The main downside of this approach is that (unless they always preview before printing) visitors won’t find out what the print version looks like until they’ve printed it. Oh, and if you don’t check carefully, you can end up with pages that don’t quite fit on your page: on some sites, the printed pages lose 4 or 5 characters from the right margin. I suspect they might have been checked on US letter paper, which is a little wider than A4.

Scripting

On many large sites, such as Wikipedia, content pages include a button or link labelled ‘Print’ or something similar. In general, these present the visitor with a new page (sometimes in a new window) with menus, ads and similar elements removed.

Like style sheets, these take some work to set up and test, but are relatively low-maintenance after that. They do require an extra click for the user, but also offer more control.

Wikipedia has the added feature of ‘books’: a reader can combine a number of articles into a single file, which can be downloaded as a PDF or ODF file.

PDF files

For many people who have been using the web for a while, PDF is the first format they think of when it comes to printable versions of web pages. PDFs have many advantages: most people have Adobe™ Acrobat® Reader, and if they don’t they can download it free of charge from Adobe.

This is the ideal format if it’s important that the document your visitors print looks exactly the same as the one you see on your computer. While Acrobat itself is not cheap, there is a range of free or inexpensive software available to create your own PDF files.

The downside is that every time you make a change to a document, you need to make it in two files (the HTML and the PDF) or end up with two different versions. Again, there is software available to create both HTML and PDF files from a single source, but this means extra work in the setup stages.

So what’s the answer?

There is no one ‘right’ answer: there are only options. Developers and site owners need to consider the possibility that some visitors will want to print their content, and provide an option. Fail to do so and you risk irritating – even alienating – a group of your site visitors: they may not return.

For advice on the best option for your site, contact me.

Why am I doing this?

Do-it-yourself discontent

In her 2005 book, Talk to the Hand, Lynne Truss identifies her discontents with twenty-first century manners. The second of these is ‘why am I doing this?’. While she acknowledges that ‘do it yourself’ was ‘a refreshing and liberating concept in its day’ it has now, she asserts, ‘got completely out of hand.’ Her complaint is built around two areas of self-service: wading through ‘self-service’ menus on the telephone and using the internet. In both cases, she objects to the ‘unacceptable transfer of effort in modern life … Why do these people never put themselves in my shoes? … Fuming resentment is the result.’

While Ms Truss may express herself more forcefully and more publicly than most of your customers, it seems unlikely that she is alone in her resentment. And whether the purpose of your site is to sell a product or promote a cause, resentful visitors aren’t going to help. So why don’t you put yourself in the shoes of the people who visit your site?

For myself, I love being able to pay my bills in ten minutes online, rather than standing in a series of queues for half an hour or more, but because this is a chore I need to undertake regularly, it’s worth the effort to learn the layout and logic of my bank’s website. For something I only need to do occasionally, I do not want to invest a significant amount of my time learning to do it your way.

Booking conference facilities

A few years ago, I wanted to check conference facilities at a local hotel which is part of a large international chain. A search led me to a website which from its description should have been for the local hotel: instead it consisted of a page with a single line of text: ‘Click to visit the [Hotel chain] Website’. A click took me (as promised) to the website for the hotel chain, not the local hotel – I needed another two clicks for that. I then scrolled down to the foot of the page, where I found a series of small images with text inviting me to find more information about HOTEL, CITY PROFILE, ROOMS & SUITES, RESTAURANTS & BARS, LEISURE & FITNESS, and MEETINGS & EVENTS. The first of these was the worst, as it actually took me back to the top of the page I was on – no more information there! Meetings and events did have useful information about their range of facilities, but no indication of cost. While there, I decided to look for a location map, to help interstate visitors: the only place I could find this was under ‘City profile’ – a page with some very general information about Tasmania and nothing at all to say about Hobart!

The site has since been rebuilt: some of these problems have been corrected, but many new ones have been introduced.

By contrast, at the website of another local hotel only a few blocks away, a single click takes me to a list of their function rooms, including their capacity and prices. The location map, complete with driving instructions, is accessible from every page via a link straightforwardly labelled ‘Location’.

Which business (or their website design team) has paid more attention to users’ needs? And if both these venues have rooms suitable for the conference, and charge comparable fees, which am I feeling better about?

Making life easier for your customers

So what do you need to do about it? If you’re the owner of a medium-sized business, and you have taken the trouble to get a website built, how can you be confident that using it will get your potential customers into a positive mood? The most common approach seems to be to assume that the web designer knows what he or she is doing, and will produce a usable site, and in an ideal world this would be true.

Sadly, we don’t live in an ideal world, and it’s not true. It really isn’t difficult to build web pages. HTML, the basic language of the web, was designed to be easy to use, and anyone with a computer and a degree of chutzpah can call themselves a website designer. And even if you are very good, it can be difficult to judge your own work objectively: you know what you meant when you labelled that link ‘Passion’, so if the customers don’t it must be their fault – mustn’t it?

A website designer can (and should) conduct usability tests throughout the design process, but it’s even better if someone else does it for them. If you’re sitting down at a computer, trying to find out how to buy the widget that is somewhere on this new site, it’s much less intimidating to know that the person sitting beside you is not the one who created those baffling menu options. Even if the designer resists the temptation to point out where the customer should go, their body language may well be saying ‘isn’t it obvious?’ Similarly, it’s difficult to run usability tests yourself: you know your business, and you know what you call your products, but do you know what your customers call them?

You could spend tens of thousands of dollars on the opinions of an internationally-respected expert like Jakob Neilsen. You could buy Steve Krug’s Don’t make me think! plus a video camera and spend some time learning how to conduct effective user testing yourself. Or you could buy the services of a web editor who can identify what you want your customers to do when they visit your website, and why they’re not doing it.

Make life easy for your customers, and they can stop saying: ‘Why am I doing this?’