CSS, printing and user expectation
9 July 2004
While recently working on a large web site that contained a lot of written articles, I had cause to think about the use of print stylesheets. Eric Meyer told us about the joys of print stylesheets using the media="print" attribute, so I thought I'd have a look at implementing a separate print version using this method.
Traditionally, table-based web sites don't print too well, and when they do you end up with the flotsam necessary on a web site but often undesirable when you just want a quick printout. Thus arose the "print friendly" page. Most news portals sport one nowadays: CNN, news.com, even the Standards-spiffy Wired; if not because of a definite need for a different version of the page, then because it has become a convention on such sites. In his article, Eric points to print stylesheets as a valuable solution that renders paper amicable pages unnecessary, but I've come to think that those pages aren't as unnecessary as they seem, and that print stylesheets have some problems of their own.
Common practice with the usage of print stylesheets is to remove anything except the content – menus, ads, buttons and backgrounds. But what if you want to print those? What if the whole reason for printing out the page was to capture that ad? ... that I love the layout so much I want to frame it? A print stylesheet presumes to know exactly what it is that you want to print, yet the web page presents us with a host of ancillary information that we might also want to capture. The only way I can circumvent the print stylesheet is to hack it out – mess with the source and remove the stylesheet link.
The second problem that I see with print stylesheets is that they defy user expectations. When I print something that's on my monitor, I expect to go to the printer and see what was on my monitor. I don't expect to see a page of text in Times New Roman with a logo at the top. At no stage in the normal course of printing are you presented with what will actually get printed out. (Unless you print preview, which I doubt many people are in the habit of doing. I know I'm not.)
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