CHI'09: PrintMarmoset

Thoughts from the CHI 2009: Digital Life New World conference in Boston, MA.

Although I try to be as green as possible, sometimes I just need to print something to read it offline. I really hate printing web pages straight from my browser because I always feel like I’m wasting paper on advertising, strange page aspect ratios, and excessively-large or too-light text. To get around this, I usually copy-and-paste relevant text and images into a MS Word document, format the text the way that I want it, and print from there. Although this is a viable workaround, it can be a bit of a pain because Word never applies formatting quite the way I want it. As a result, I don’t always print “cleanly” as much as I’d like to. The good news: Jun Xiao and Jian Fan, researchers at HP Lab, have come up with an idea to combat wasteful print jobs which they call “PrintMarmoset.”

PrintMarmoset’s self-proclaimed goal is to improve the experience of printing web content “while simultaneously addressing user needs and environmental responsibility.” Its creators hope to help people save paper when printing web pages by allowing them to specify print areas, called “printer masks.” These allow people to highlight important content and images, which cutting out headers, footnotes, and advertising. In addition to making printouts more useful and relevant, they reduce excess pages from printing.

At the time of the conference, it seemed that the researchers focused primarily on how one might set a printer mask using a browser plug in. After a user successfully sets a printer mask, the mask is saved to that web page, so the next time that she visits the web page, she can see the printer mask that she already set. The researchers also explained a potential social component, in which users could see each others’ printer masks. Another idea is to include a counter widget that shows PrintMarmoset users how much paper has been saved thanks to the plug in. This could increase user commitment to the tool and encourage additional prosocial behavior.

Although PrintMarmoset is a very cool concept, there are still many challenges that need to be addressed. Several audience members asked the researchers about the impacts that the tool would have on web design. In particular, how would this impact online advertising? Are there best-practices that web designers would want to adopt to comply with PrintMarmoset’s outputting?

The details of how a printer mask would be actually print out also need further exploration. When an audience member asked what a printout might look like, the researchers admitted to not having focused on this element much, but offered some suggestions, such as using templates. This is one of the more interesting aspects, as I can think of several potential solutions that could involve different levels of customizability, such as drag-and-drop or the ability to apply a personalized CSS template based on HTML tags. Either of these would be an obvious improvement over the current copy-and-paste method that I use in Word. If they could solve formatting issues without requiring one to open another application, this would be ideal. Also, a “Print Preview” feature could be incredibly useful, as this is currently lacking from browser print jobs.

I really like the concept of PrintMarmoset—it seems like a potentially simple and lightweight solution to a common problem. It seems like a simple and convenient enough tool that everyday users could adopt it. The actual interactions surrounding the tool are critically important, though, and I would encourage the researchers to give more attention to detailing the actual printout process since this could determine the success of the product. If the plug-in launches as a Firefox extension, I might give it a try, but unless it provides an obvious benefit of convenience, speed, and performance, it’s back to copy-and-pasting into Word for me.