All The Views That's Fit To Print
By David Walker (Google profile)
A programmer sits at his desk with a stack of printed manuals at his elbow. A member of the professions confides guiltily that he uses paper documents rather than reading from the Microsoft Word display. A colleague pesters you for a reference book which essentially duplicates material available on the Web. Each of these situations points to one of the guilty secrets of Web design: for many users, just about the most important button on the Web browser is the one labelled "print".
Why is printing a guilty secret? Because few designers want to acknowledge the print button exists. The Web is not a new form of print, they declare, but a multimedia hypertext revolution carrying all before it. Sure, a few Luddites may still out of habit use "dead trees" to display documents, but they'll die out soon enough.
Truth is, four years after the birth of Netscape the print-button users show absolutely no sign of dying out. What's more, they include not only the older and less technologically hip but also many younger and highly tech-savvy users. They're often made to feel guilty (my professional friend voiced sudden relief when I told him that many "techies" rely on printed documentation). But guilt or no guilt, these users keep on clicking the "print" button and stashing documents into their bags to read on the train, in bed or simply at their desks. Far from dwindling to extinction, they'll keep Hewlett Packard and Epson and Lexmark and Canon in business and those Reflex paper ads on TV well into the next century. Indeed, by creating access to more and more documents, the Web may actually be moving the much-vaunted "paperless office" not closer but further away.
These users prefer paper for quite rational and well-understood reasons. A screen display gives roughly one-tenth the resolution of a laser-printed paper document, but produces more eye-straining glare. It's harder to scroll down a screen page than to scan down a printed one. You can typically find your place (and establish all-important context) more quickly in a paperback than in 200k Word document. And you can't really take a notebook computer to the loo.
The bottom line: if keen users are likely to print your Web pages, you should probably make it easier for them to do so. Whenever you produce technical documentation, or any piece of print stretching for more than 200 words - anything which looks like a "read" - you should presume that some of your most involved clients will want to print it.
This printability problem has led a few sites to create dedicated pages for printer use. The popular tech-news site ZDNet has long offered visitors a "print this page" button, which takes them to a version of their article specially formatted for printing. And Forrester Research needs to take printing seriously because its online material forms an important part of its very pricey product offering. So it gives readers the option of plain print-optimised HTML material or a more elaborate document in Adobe's PDF (Potable Document Format).
Creating good PDF documents takes effort. But you can drop print-optimised HTML into a simple template or create it almost automatically out of a database. If you're heading down the multimedia path with print-heavy documents, you should ask yourself just how many of your users will be looking for the "print" button.