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Print-this-page Function - a Bad Idea and Its Solution

Article source: http://www.linksnoop.com/. Used with author's permission.

Reading in a browser is different than from paper
Writing text for online reading is different than composing an article for a printed magazine. One assumption is that visitors are "jumpier" than readers. Subtitles, shorter sentences and paragraphs are key-elements in formatting online text to best effect.

The visitor's interest needs to be captured before clicking on the next link. This is comparable to newspapers, where many pieces of information compete against each other on the same page.

Online content is printed on a crispy, blank page. There simply is no competition. The same text which was effective on the screen might look very bland printed. The short content, tuned to convey a message by starting every line with the perfect keyword, might look very lost when printed on a sheet of paper using the whole page-width.

Better to have no information than one that is out of context
Web-pages are not structured sequentially - unlike a book. The whole point of a web-site is to enrich it with links, connecting it to information that the visitor might find useful. Web-sites tend to tear information into chunks or create many entry-pages, leading further into the site. That makes very much sense in regards to online reading. Also advertising profits from that, because more pages mean more ads served and better information, what the user is interested in.

Word on the net is that 80% of traffic does not hit the homepage but directly jumps deep into a site. If the accessed page is only a segment of the relevant information, a printout is useless or at the very least out of context. It is not possible to really understand the quarterly numbers, when the company-strategy leading to those results is not known.

Having incoherent information lying on "to be read" stacks can be very detrimental because the context is lost even further by time passing by.

Loose control over the content
Content needs to change, because contrary to a printed page, a web-site is expected to be up-to-date. The owner of the site is generally in control of the content published.

A printed page represents a snapshot in time of the ever changing content. Not only does the publisher loose control, but the information is no longer accurate.

Goodbye branding, goodbye image
Information is conveyed through many channels. There is factual content -usually text - but at the same time and equally important there is soft-content. Screen-design, key-messages or special-features for example are key elements, which can not be accurately displayed in print.

These channels merge together to convey "the image". Most of the time, this is a carefully planned part of corporate branding and does not come cheap. The simple "print this page" button reduces the elaborate corporate communications to a "default-font" page, where the logo is displayed within a dark, square box, the browser adds a cryptic web-address as a headline and the styled product-description is reduced to a two-liner with no hyphenation.

It stops the user from browsing
Designing a page aims at one thing only - keep the visitor engaged and interested. Printing a page can be a dangerous break in a flow the visitor is now comfortable with. A popup appears asking to select a printer. A choice needs to be made, taking the mind away from the carefully planned information-architecture. Usually people wait very anxiously and even reach for the page coming out of the printer before it is finished. Then they look at it and ask themselves "where was I?" This interruption might be enough not to return to browsing.

Why would I want to print a page?
What are the main reasons that a visitor wants to use a "print-this-page" function.

  • Forward the information to someone
  • Store the information for later use
  • Read the information offline

These are all valid needs. Printing out an individual web-page might however not be the best solution.

The solution lies somewhere else
Forwarding the link, maybe with some prepared text, should take care of the first action. Well formatted bookmarks using descriptive URLs and intelligently hinting at this feature on the page itself, will solve the second requirement. Both leave the information within the framework and control of the site.

If information needs to be printed it needs to be prepared and put into context. An example: a good print-version of a product page should contain a description, detailed information, some essentials about the company and maybe a reference where to purchase the product offline.

A print-version requires a format that is intended for printing and not one intended to be used within a browser. In order to correctly use elements from the corporate identity or appealingly display text, PDF might be the best choice available for now. From the perspective of online usability, PDF is not unchallenged. But in this case we are talking about physical, printed usability. And if it is the wish of the user to print, it is the command to the site. But let's get the best out of it - it is the visitors return ticket.

Raoul Dobal focuses on usablilty and is partner of ADWIRED, a Swiss company specialised in webbased communication. Visit http://www.adwired.ch/en/ for information about services or http://www.iquse.ch to read further articles on usability.

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