Printing is broken.

In fact, as the ever-spot-on Oatmeal says: Printers were sent from Hell to make us miserable.

I own a printer. I’d rather not, and I run a mostly paper-free life, but there are still occasions when I need to print stuff – end of year stuff, the odd invoice, a letter or two.

Every single time I dust off my printer, these things happen:

  • The ink runs out. I go to Smiths, spend half an hour looking at a vast wall of different cartridges for printers with slightly different model numbers before realising that my exact model isn’t represented here and so I apparently need to order online instead
  • I go to Amazon and find an incredible array of possible inks – the official ones come in at about half the price of my printer. Let’s consider that again: my printer costs £45 new. The ink costs £25. This is like filling up a £5,000 car with £2,500 of petrol every time you want to use it.
  • I inevitably choose a dodgy non-HP ink and then suffer a deeply irritating “non compatible HP ink will DESTROY YOUR LIFE” message until that ink runs out too (normally only about 3 minutes, I grant you, but hey)
  • The printer crunks 15 sheets of paper with every print
  • The printer requires a 100 Tb driver download every time I’m in a hurry
  • If something breaks, I have absolutely no option but to bin the printer. I believe as an individual I have owned at least 5 inkjet printers in the last 10 years.

We all just accept this as the norm, and it’s obscene.

I refuse to believe that printers are SO complicated they need official inks, or can’t have replacement parts. I refuse to believe that in this year of our lord 2013, we can’t build a device that’ll print out one page of text without performing complicated origami techniques on the next 14 pages in the tray. I refuse to believe that I absolutely MUST download that fucking printer application, edit suite, Chrome toolbar, desktop helper and new OS in order to PRINT A FUCKING LETTER.

I’d much rather pay £100 upfront for a decent, open-sourced printer. One where I could buy spare parts and £5 replacement cartridges.

If it were on Kickstarter, I’d fund that shit.

Links in print

I’m working on the new Eduserv website right now – content inputting, structuring, trying to hang the whole thing together – and the question came up the other day about how best to deal with incoming links from printed materials. We do a fair amount of these at work: brochures, leaflets, case studies – that kind of thing. I’m also writing a book at the moment, and this’ll have a supporting website – so the same question is looming large in another part of my life too.

When I gave this some brain time, it struck me that there are several possible solutions, and also some obvious problems which come along with those solutions, so I thought I’d punt the ideas I came up with here and see if you clever people had any better or different ideas.

The problem that needs solving is obvious: URL’s tend to be fairly cumbersome, and frankly a PITA to type in. Getting people from print to web on the other hand seems to be something which has a fair amount of potential value in it, either from a marketing “measure the effectiveness of our campaign” perspective or purely (as is the case with my book) because the web gives you an opportunity to offer additional and more up-to-date material than the printed page.

The barrier is high, though. We’re almost (I think) past having to type the http:// bit. We’re also (I think) past having to type the www bit too (unless you’re talking many government institutions, that is..).

The obvious solution, and one which – if you flick through a newspaper or magazine – seems to be the most favoured is to simply use an aliased url of some description. So there will be somewebsite.com/specialoffer or whatever. Easy enough, although there is some alias hackery required and needing to be maintained at some level. Also, the URL is still a bit of a mouthful, especially if your root domain is a bit chunky in the first place. So my old stomping ground has sciencemuseum.org.uk/launchball for example – fine, but a bit of an arse for a user to have to type.

The next obvious one is to URL shorten. Bit.ly, tinyurl, goo.gl – they’re all much of a muchness: immediate, short, measurable URLs, and if you fork out for “pro” versions of these services then you can get a similar(ish) domain to the one you originally started with. TechCrunch for example shortens to tcrn.ch/whatever. All good, but as per wider criticisms of URL shortening: not only does it kind of “break” the web, it also relies on a 3rd party. If you’re talking about printed material then the link potentially needs to be maintained and maintainable over a more extended period of time, so this becomes more of an issue than online maintenance. You can always create your own shortening service (there are a whole number of scripts out there that do it), which makes things a bit safer, but you still need to maintain a secondary shorter domain.

Next up, and potentially good but not yet widespread enough is QR coding. Instant links, but suffering from two main problems: 1) few people know what to do with a QR code or have the necessary hardware to deal with it and 2) typically you’ll scan with a mobile, which probably isn’t where you want to be experiencing the web content. There are ways round this: you could for example ask people for an email address on first scan, and send links to this address – but it’s all a bit clunky.

The final thing I can think of is to use a variation of the “big brand” approach you often see on TV: “Search the web for: ***”, but this time say something like “Search our site for: ****”. You could do this using some kind of magnifier icon to keep the words short.

I’ve got a suspicion that I’m over-thinking the problem, especially given that most brands – even companies who have a fair overlapping of offline and online presences – seem to do it using the obvious first method. But it also strikes me as a problem which could be better solved with a bit of clever lateral thinking. Any ideas?