Printing Websites: War is Peace

Recently, I discussed web development with a friend of mine, who isn’t a web developer by trade, but a teacher in various computer related classes, and such he is able to offer insights into user behaviour.
One of the subjects we touched upon, was printing web pages, me expressing my usual annoyance with web sites having separate print versions instead of just using a print stylesheet. Then he gave me a truly rude awakening, by claiming that the separate print version is neccessary, even if inelegant.

He pointed out to me that his students generally _never attempted to print a web page, unless there was a link to a separate print version._
While I can’t offer any hard numbers through usability studies, I trust his experience, and as such believe in his observation.
Further, he pointed out:
* Users have become so used to WYSIWYG(What You See Is What You Get) that they never consulted a print preview before printing.
* The WYSIWYG dependance made users expect web pages to be so ugly when printed, that they just wouldn’t bother printing.
* Users didn’t know where their browser’s print button was, or they ignored it.
So, while separate print versions may be considered evil by web developers, they are not considered evil by the user – _separate print versions is what she or he expects, and as such bad UI(User Interface) has become the norm._
h3. Solutions?
Am I saying that we should stop using media="print"? Absolutely not. This can be solved in a number of ways:
# Browser makers could implement window.printPreview() of some sort, so that you could trigger the print preview mode through JavaScript.
# You could, prior to calling window.print() apply your print stylesheet to screen media, so that the user will get something resembling a preview.
# Instead of offering a print version, you could make the print button lead to an explanation that all pages on the given site will print just nicely from the browser’s print button.
Which solution would I prefer? In the long run, I think we would all benefit from most web sites looking OK on print, and as such, explaining that “This site is printer-friendly” would be better.

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  1. exclipy

     /  2004-11-13

    That’s rubbish, Arve. I am in acquaintence with an adult computer class, and most of the students there don’t even notice the “Print friendly version” and most wouldn’t know what it means if they did see it.
    They just know that to print a page, you click File, then click Print. They generally forget that it will probably print all the navigation and crap with their cheese cake recipe, and the printer spits out four pages where only one is necessary.

  2. I agree that the current behavour and user expectations are that you need a print link and a separate printable page. But I think users can be educated. More and more users now see the benefit of tabbed browsing. Thus have they learned to like tabbed browsing more than the old «new window» or «reuse old window» paradigm.
    I think we can educate the users to like and expect pages to print nicely as well. We should at least try, so I would try point number three as far as absolutely possible.

  3. Bill

     /  2004-11-15

    Well I do teach a number of adult computer classes, and I’ve seen both in roughly equal numbers. Given the chance, most seem to enjoy having the “printer friendly” link. I must admit I’m guilty in having made those “features” too.
    But then again, in most of the places I’ve done it, it was because we had different content on printable pages than screen pages. Don’t ask, I don’t want to go into why we had to. Let’s just say it suck(s). 😉
    I like item 3, and really like the idea of print-preview being activated by it.