Volume 32 Number 10
By Michael Desmond | October 2017
There are things that send me into immediate rage. Drivers staring at their smartphones when the light turns green. Or when I snag the wire of my earbuds on an object so they get ripped forcefully out of my ears. Or, almost any time I have to print something.
Not to get all "if we can send a man to the moon," but how can it still be this frustrating to shoot a few bits across six feet of USB cable and have them laid out properly on a piece of paper?
I was thinking about this after reading David Platt's Don't Get Me Started column this month, where he concocts a handy metric to determine the difficulty and brokenness of a user experience, inspired by his struggle to connect an iPhone to the Harvard University Wi-Fi network. His column got me to thinking about another mundane-yet-frustrating computing experience, and one that's been around for decades: printing.
In an age of smartphones, autonomous cars and AI-driven assistant technology, it's astonishing how little printing has changed since 1995. Printing a document is like lobbing a really unreliable hand grenade over a wall. Your grenade rolls around in the print queue for a few seconds or forever, depending on the whims of the printer driver, the connectivity between printer and PC, ink and toner levels, and a host of other variables. I've opened the print queue window after failing to see activity, only to discover a mob of failed and forgotten print jobs stuck in there. It's infuriating.
I asked Platt about this, and he was blunt. "I cringe when my wife announces she's gotten a document that she needs printed."
Platt gets especially worked up over the unhelpful error messages from his printer. "Unable to print because printer is offline," said Platt, a professor at the Harvard University Extension: "If one of my UX students threw such a cryptic message, I'd flunk his sorry ass so fast he'd change his major to Sanskrit."
Any IT manager can regale you with stories of undiagnosable printer failures, but even at the home-office level printing is an exercise in fail. When I try to print, my Windows 7 home PC and Windows 10 laptop both often show duplicate printer instances in the Windows Print dialog box. Should I send the job to the printer named Brother HL-2340D series, or to Brother HL-2340D series (Copy 1) or (Copy 2) instead? It's insane.
It doesn't have to be this way. The solution to bad user experiences is better developer training and education. Big ticket events like Microsoft Build and Ignite are incredibly important in this regard, but I'm a particular fan of smaller conferences like Live! 360, which focuses on hands-on experiences and face-to-face interaction with presenters and experts.
Look, I'm not saying that attending a hands-on technical conference will spare anyone the indignity of being flummoxed by the Windows Print Queue. Heck, my Windows 7 desktop spawned a Brother HL-2340D (Copy 3) in the printer list just this afternoon. So, the struggle continues. But it's events like Visual Studio Live! and Live! 360—small, accessible and hands-on—that can help move us all to a better place.
Michael Desmond is the Editor-in-Chief of MSDN Magazine.