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One Big Print Button?

Is the web's tendency to paginate big topics a feature or a bug?  April 17, 2005 

Synopsis: Why do I have to print out hundreds of separate pages to learn a topic that is on an otherwise great website? And don't tell me to read online.

I frequently use the web to learn whole subjects, not just to research snippets of information. So one thing that often frustrates me is finding a great site that takes a conceptual topic and breaks it up into dozens or hundreds of HTML pages. I then have to print out each page individually to read the whole story... in traffic jams, on a walk, on the exercycle, in bed and so on.

The last time this happened was after seeing a new type of radio-controlled plane at my local park. It was launched by just throwing it, and looked so easy to maneuver that I thought I'd get more serious about taking it up. I found a site that told the story, but page-at-a-time. I wrote the author and he graciously converted it to a PDF. What a guy!

Now if that's the way it always worked—ask the owner for a PDF and you get it—there'd be no issue. (Any solution that creates such duplication of course is flawed.) But what's the real issue here? For starters, I still haven't found a web app that lets me scan a site or portion thereof, see a list of pages, and check the ones you want to print. That might be nice. More recently web design allows for print vs. online style sheets. This help per page. Does "format for paper" necessarily mean include a cover, TOC, index, headers, footers, and page numbers? This whole thing loop-de-loops back to my obsessive complaint that web sites' "site maps" and various "indexes" should be acknowledged as TOCs and indexes (full-text search is a separate, new online-only thing) and we just need a technology, or actually a toolset that serves both output needs. At the base is the need for database organization of info... separate pages any way you cut it. In the middle is the need for navigation and accoutrements (indicia?) suited to the delivery mechanism. At the end is the need for consumers to choose the output they want.

There's another side issue here. The reason large topics are broken up is because of 28.8 modems (for those who still know what 28.8 or even "modem" means), yet they don't exist any more. Sreaming data may be another whole solution to this problem.

On a recent techwriting job, I used for the first time RoboHelp's "single-source" technique. About 500 topics are in a single online help system, but also can be spit out as two separate guides. The process is still far from consumer-ready, but it's getting there. Some day sites will have a "Print as Book" facility and you'll see a lot of presets and default choices for the "paper navigation" and one big Print button... "Print All?" I think that's where we're headed.


"My interest in usability arose from the pain and tears of patching the wounds of suffering interface designs with the inadequate bandages of help files and user guides." — Daniel Cohen

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