The Pareto Principle, the Internet of Things, and Paper: A Printer to Make You Smile
Do you hate your printer? OK, hate is a strong word, but let’s talk.
My first printer, a noisy dot-matrix Imagewriter II, was part of my first Mac purchase in December 1985. It had a sleek white housing, took continuous-form feed (or fan-fold) paper (which, at the time, we likened to paper towels), and took black ink only. It had a few simple lights and buttons that didn’t require reading a manual to understand. It was sleek, did what it was told, and aside from being incredibly heavy, fit well with my student life requirements.
I’ve had a few printers in the past three decades, but none as pleasing as that Imagewriter II. Epsons and Canons and HPs, oh my! They’ve frozen, their drivers have mysteriously failed, and they have crankily refused to print with black ink when the cyan (that’s yellow, y’know) was not tippy-top. My current printer, since it was about six months old, refuses to print unless I unplug it from the power supply and plug it in again before printing. Every. Darn. Time.
You’d think there would have to be a better way! Well, one 27-year-old German industrial designer thought so, too.
Ludwig Rensch had an idea. What if printers weren’t horrible, awful, frustrating pieces of technology that we depended upon for providing tangible representations of information, but were instead easy to use and nifty to gaze upon, and did what we needed?
His prototype? Paper: A Printer You Actually Want
In Rensch’s words:
Paper is a machine that can print, scan and copy in a pleasant way. It communicates its function, provides clear feedback and uses physical controls to operate the key functions with ease.
Seriously? No randomly blinking lights that are reminiscent of Morse Code but have no clear meaning?
No refusal to print in black and white unless three other color inks are full?
No ugly metal and plastic blob that makes your kitchen or living room feel industrial?
Well, that is a breath of fresh air.
Instead of the black and grey boxes we’ve come to know, Rensch’s Paper is a brightly colored, lightweight, all-in-one printer/scanner/copier.
Imagine having a traditional flatbed printer or scanner but then turning it on its side. In lieu of a traditional stack of copy paper, Rensch’s Paper prints or copies to a continuous sheet (sans tractor-feed holes) on an upright paper roll with pages cut one slice at a time, much like Berg’s Little Printer, which I wrote about in Indulgences, Unitaskers and Paper Doll’s Take on the Little Printer.
Instead of black or grey plastic and metal that’s suited for office space, Rensch designed something that adds some quirky color. (Although Paper Doll, herself, has a lifelong history detesting the color orange, this blog will not hold that against Paper.)
The revised design makes it more compact, space-saving and mobile. There’s just one switch to select “scan” or “copy,” the LEDs let you know the status of Paper’s ink levels, and there’s a handle on top so you can pick it up at a moment’s notice without feeling like you’re carrying all your worldly possessions like in the closing scene from Fiddler on the Roof.
As a professional organizer, I was delighted to see that Rensch developed the user interface to follow the Pareto Principle: 80% of your success comes from 20% of your effort. In organizing, we usually take that to mean that 80% of the time, we wear 20% of our clothes (wearing and washing, and storing them for easy access and wearing them again), while kids play with 20% of their toys, and so on. We focus on that to show how, when we discard some subset of the 80% were rarely use or touch, we regain space without regretting the loss of what we’ve donated or tossed.
This is where the paradox of technology kicks in. Devices become incredibly complicated. Microwaves, Remote Controls, TVs, Cars, Ovens, Printers, Coffee Machines – they all have features that the majority of the owners never use. That is because they don’t know how or why, and they’re not willing to spend time and energy to learn how to use something. Especially in the days of streamlined services and apps, that make life so easy without instructions or efforts, it seems ridiculous that one has to read a user’s guide to heat up some food.
Rensch applied the Pareto Principle, considering the likelihood that 80% of the time, we only use 20% of the features of office appliances like printers, copiers, and scanners, so why create bulk and disarray with more than is needed? To achieve his goal, Rensch started at the beginning: he defined a printer’s key functions, analyzed the required procedures and simplified everything until he had created an easy-to-learn, simple-to-understand, aesthetically pleasing, and minimalistic product.
THE INTERNET OF THINGS…USED BY REGULAR PEOPLE
Rensch designed his Paper printer/scanner/copier as part of his graduate thesis Interacting with Things, which looked at how machines can be used more intuitively, and he asked three basic questions:
- Is it possible to transfer the quality of a digital user experience to an everyday object?
- Can we use physical feel to improve digital experiences?
- Are we able to make the information and the opportunities of the internet more tangible and experience them in physical things?
Then, he applied his concepts to three designs: Paper, PostPoster (an interactive graphical poster that uses a specialized conductive paint to generate sounds), and Musikbox 1188 and its app, a Bluetooth loudspeaker that lets you listen to music from your friend’s phone, tablet, or computer even if your friend (and her gadgets) are on the other side of the world.
The ever-expanding concept of the Internet of Things, upon which Rensch’s work is predicated, is key to understanding his designs. The Internet of Things, or IoT, is like where your Nest programmable thermostat or your “fridge of the future” can talk to your phone or computer and to one another to make your life more enjoyable. The thermostat can increase the A/C on a hot day so it’s just perfect when you walk in the door, but also send you an alert if your furnace is acting weird and the pipes might burst in winter. Meanwhile, your fridge can detect when you’re low on milk, your ingredients are about to expire, or you’re lacking what you need for the recipe you programmed in for Saturday — and then auto-order more groceries!
While most designers are eager for this Rise of the Machines and are welcoming our new programmable toaster overlords, the rare detractors are usually concerned with the security of IoT. Rensch, however, is more concerned about the humanity of it (per his thesis):
It’s the age of the smartphones. Like no other technology in the recent decades, they become part of our lives. Services offered in the internet allow us to do really complex stuff in no time, with no effort and in pleasant ways, for instant [sic] sell a bike to someone, find directions in foreign places and do business on the go. Static information that was bound in books and maps is now fluid and accessible from everywhere at everytime.
But these developments also must be viewed critically.
Even these miracle-machines have their down-sides. We all know people who are sunken into their Smartphone screens, absorbed by virtual worlds. And from time to time, we’ve been that person. All the Apps and Services are good and useful on their own, but to take care of everything only with our phones is distracting us from the outside world and our environment. Interactions with screens demand an enormous amount of concentration and leave the human motor functions and haptics unused.
Paper looks a lot like a throw-back to the days of mechanical buttons and dials, making use of the user’s fine motor skills to tune in the desired solution with basic physical controls and verify them with simple light signals. In that way, it reminded me of an old radio, where you turned the dial and when you hit upon an AM or FM station clearly, the tiny light would shine brightly.
Paper could work manually, only, but Rensch designed it to operate as an Internet of Things device — but better. According to Rensch, the device is meant to be seen as more of an “aesthetically pleasing creative tool that brings together the analog and digital worlds for transferring content from one to the other.”
Paper hasn’t left the virtual world behind. It can be operated via its own app on your mobile device or at a website in your computer’s browser.
To really appreciate the experience of using Paper, which to me, harkens back to my first experience with the design of Apple products, check out the video.
IN THE REAL WORLD
Of course, and I’m sure you expected this, there is sad news for those of us eager to try Paper out. You see, Paper is not-ready-for-prime-time because of the economics of the Office Supply Industrial Complex. Your frustrating HP or Epson is frustrating because it’s cheap, and it’s cheap because the companies know they can hook you with the low-price printer and weigh you down with printer ink made only for your style of printer, forcing you to come back time and again for a cyan you don’t really want or need.
Without Big Ink money to subsidize the development, manufacturing, and distribution of Rensch’s Paper, this pretty little thing won’t be on desks (or kitchen counters) anytime soon. We can only hope that the big guys will take Rensch’s approach under advisement, and give us a printer/scanner/copier we’d actually enjoy using.