Do you really need to print that?

Do you really need to print that?
Do you really need to print that?

This is not difficult to do, once you know how. Of course, it’s not terribly useful, since a) most people don’t read the display on a printer unless an error occurs, or b) you’re only likely to see it once you’ve already sent something to print.

Is this kind of very, very weak persuasion – actually worthwhile? From a user’s point of view, it’s less intrusive than, say, a dialogue box that asks “Are you sure you want to print that? Think of the environment” every time you try to print something (which would become deeply irritating for many users), but when applied thoughtfully, as (in a different area of paper consumption) in Pete Kazanjy’s These Come From Trees initiative, or even in various e-mail footers* (below), there may actually be some worthwhile influence on user behaviour. It’s not ‘micropersuasion’ in Steve Rubel’s sense, exactly, but there is some commonality.

Please consider the environment

I’m thinking that addressing the choices users make when they decide to print (or not print) a document or email could be an interesting specific example to investigate as part of my research, once I get to the stage of user trials. How effective are the different strategies in actually reducing paper/energy/toner/fuser/ink consumption and waste generation? Would better use of ‘Printer-friendly’ style sheets for webpages save a lot of unnecessary reprints due to cut-off words and broken layouts? Should, say, two pages per sheet become the default when a dicument goes above a certain number of pages? Should users be warned if widows (not so much orphans) are going to increase the number of sheets needed, or should the leading be automatically adjusted (by default) to prevent this? What happens if we make it easier to avoid printing banner ads and other junk? What happens if we make the paper tray smaller so the user is reminded of just how much paper he/she is getting through? What happens if we include a display showing the cost (financially) of the toner/ink, paper and electricity so far each day, or for each user? What happens if we ration paper for each user and allow him or her to ‘trade’ with other users? What happens if we give users a ‘reward’ for reaching targets of reducing printer usage, month-on-month? And so on. (The HP MOPy Fish – cited in B J Fogg’s Persuasive Technology – is an example of the opposite intention: a system designed to encourage users to print more, by rewarding them.)

Printing is an interesting area, since it allows the possibility of testing out both software and hardware tactics for causing behaviour change, which I’m keen to do.


  1. Dave

    Very nice idea, but really difficult to do in a workgroup printer – you have 10 people standing around with one person’s “do you really need to print that” alert on, wondering whose print is gumming the works.

    Maybe better to get it into a printer driver, something an office’s IT staff can configure for hundreds or thousands of users.

  2. Cameron

    GreenPrint already market a pop-up that
    warns of orphans and reformats to prevent
    them. Most interesting is that for large
    companies the software is sold on a % of
    the savings to the company.

  3. My instinctive response to these things is, “who are you and who let you into my office/home?”. 🙂

    Next I typically wish that people would (metaphorically) make a big sign for themselves to look at all the time, which would read, “Think first.”.

    Somehow I have a hard time believing that if we don’t get ourselves into the habit of thinking before we act/speak then no machine is going to do it for us.

    Does anyone ever tie a string around their own finger anymore?

  4. I’d think a pop-up on screen would be LESS annoying than one on the printer- assuming that is, that the printer message stops the print job. If it doesn’t stop the job then I’d think it would be ineffective, users would forget about the message if they ever noticed in the first place. I have to question the assumption that the institution implementing these messages is motivated by environmental concerns, I would think money would be a greater motivator. Not that it matters: the result impacts both. I wouldn’t object to that sort of control being placed on a public or company computer, particularly since it’s non-restrictive: the user, seeing the message, can still choose to print.

  5. I think the question that I would first ask would be, “Why do people print?”

    Once you have an effective answer for that, maybe the whole problem changes. The things I can think of are,

    1) Convenient reading (e-ink readers would help with this, or cellphones with usable reading displays)
    2) Presentations (how can we transfer information differently?)
    3) Archiving (there are plenty of solutions here already, why are they not used more effectively?)
    4) Antiquated systems and processes (e.g. certain companies require an original paper invoice instead of an electronic one)
    5) Readability (displays need to improve to allow easier reading, but this ties in 1.)
    6) Habit (social pressure would be most effective, “Printing is sooo last year,” but awareness of the real cost would also help, i.e. amount of trees, water etc. that go into making paper)

  6. Dave

    Add to “Why do people print”:

    They can’t or won’t use a projector in a meeting, so they copy the stupid slide deck 10 times for everyone around the table plus two waste copies.

    They don’t want to do a web conference, so they make you attend to be fully informed, so they copy the stupid slide deck 10 times for everyone around the table plus two waste copies.

    They want to leave something behind so you remember their sales call, so they copy the stupid slide deck 10 times for everyone around the table plus two waste copies.

  7. I’m doing work on sustainability at the moment, and ‘why people print?’ is a tricky one.

    My personal reasons are:
    1. I’m working on something fiddly and constantly swapping windows in order to cross-refer to something is both irritating and not time-effective
    2. I want to do some background reading/research – I tend to save up papers, then print them off before a long train journey. I can annotate a paper copy far more easily and without the need for electricity.

    Our network printers are set to duplex print by default, and I sometimes set it to 2 pages per side (i.e. 4 pages per sheet of paper).

    One question is why the approximate costs of printing locally are so hard to find. I wanted to compare a print shop costing against printing on demand on the network colour printer, but I couldn’t find the figures to demonstrate that toner etc costs made the print shop cheaper. Provide those figures – “it cost 12p and generated 0.xg CO2 to print this page” – and people can see the invisible costs to business of printing.

    I’d love to find a way of indicating who it is who prints off work then never collects it as they clearly print things automatically without considering why they are doing it.

  8. How about turning it on its ear: “Did you need to print that?”, either on the printer or as a part of the printing progress box (with “cancel” nearby).

    Maybe you can’t change behavior this time around, but instead can cause people to think about it next time.

  9. Suw

    I always set my printer to print two pages per side and use duplex printing, unless something specific stops me. Thus I cut my printing down to a quarter of what it was when my printer couldn’t do that. If all printers had that capability, and if it was set as a default (as per Mags above), that alone would save significant paper.

  10. rixta

    hi there

    i got a problem thats realy annoying…..

    ive got the same printer(as shown in the image above) that we use in the building…

    so wjen a user wants to print 2copies of a document, it prints 4 pages…WHY???

    i only want 2 copies, why give me 4???

    please help..

    thank you

  11. il10o

    I don’t print much anymore, but I still go to the café a couple of times a day for a cup of coffee, which is served in a paper cup, with a paper sleeve, and a plastic lid. I reuse the cup to get water from the water cooler later in the day, so it’s not a complete waste, but clearly supplying my own reusable cup would be better. However, I don’t, nor does anyone else who goes to the café.

    It seems to me that there is something about human nature which causes us to identify a threat (i.e. environmental impact of printing), and then focus on that threat to the exclusion of other more pervasive threats. Or perhaps it is just that going out for a coffee is the “in” thing to do, and printing is not.

    Clearly there is an environmental impact to just about everything we do, and I’m not trying to justify inaction by taking this to a ridiculous level, but maybe we should broaden the focus to “Think before you consume.”

  12. Andrew

    I am trying to find data that compares embodied costs of printing to projecting. I am suspicious that we are not actually measuring the total impact, and focusing only on the local act. But if you care about ecology, you have to look at the long strain, not the short ones.

    I am suspicious that the embodied energy, material and environmental impact of manufacturing, distribution, and disposal of projectors and monitors will be far worse in the long term than the waste produced by paper and paper substitutes.

    And there’s already recycling potential for paper. I’m not sure about monitors.

    I’m anti “green,” since its a marketing strategy.
    I’m pro science, since that’s closer to a truth strategy.

  13. If you’re the type of person who would put the message on your printer, you’re probably thinking about it each time you print anyway …

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