Thursday, May 6, 2010

Living with Mailing Labels

Around ten years ago, we reps were issued our first computers. Dial-up, aol accounts, little orange screens- they left much to be desired when set beside our current flashy Dell Vostros.

But I remember one thing the customer database program on those little machines did quite well: when you wanted to print a batch of mailing labels, you hit a button called “print labels.”

Sorry, this is going to be one of those whiny, insider, why should anyone else care posts. But I spent the better part of a morning doing battle with Mail Merge in an effort to print a batch of mailing labels, and I need to vent.

Labels are not an insignificant part of our job. For all the hype in publishing media about digital catalogs, our customers prefer the traditional, printed versions by a landslide.

We send out copies of these new fall catalogs to hundreds of booksellers, sometimes heavily annotated for their particular stores. And each season I groan when I think about the bookends of the process: at the start, figuring out once again how to print address labels; at the end, hauling 200-plus two pound priority mail envelopes to the post office.

A couple seasons ago, defeated by the cumbersome semi-annual ritual of label-wrangling, I switched over to the US Post Office label printing program. Though arcane and bizarre in many ways, it got the job done.

Alas, in the switchover to our new laptops my beloved Shipping Assistant has disappeared, and my 265 saved addresses with it. I briefly considered just bearing down and re-entering everything, but the USPS website was so hostile it seemed like I’d have to hack my way back in to use it. And these days you don’t want to even think about that.

So I reverted to Outlook’s label printing procedure. Maybe it’s smoother than it was in earlier incarnations, I stupidly told myself.

Though it’s a business-oriented contact database designed for organizing interactions with customers, the designers apparently don't consider label printing an important enough function to warrant its own button. Indeed, the first counter-intuitive thing you have to do to make labels happen is to leave the program entirely and switch to a Word document.

I could kill my modest blog readership entirely right now by marching you through the fifteen tedious and confusing steps I had to download and print to accomplish my goal. But I can’t bear to revisit them. Suffice it to say that labels miraculously appeared just at the moment when I’d reached the breaking point, poised to pick up that ancient technology- a pen- to begin writing out my addresses.

But not so fast. Try getting them to align properly! I switched my animosity to the printer, which inflexibly refused to allow me to adjust the feed so three lines of address could actually appear coherently on the same label.

This too was eventually mastered, and, eureka, I had a pristine set of mailing labels. I suppose I could have called my colleagues, Adena and Patricia, both of whom are savvier on this than I am. But I am a man, in this respect anyway. Unfortunately, I had to spoil about two dozen sheets of blank labels to get six usable ones. Still, a victory over technology is a victory, and I will savor it.

But what am I saying? Why am I at war with my technology when it’s supposed to be my friend?

I think maybe Don Norman has the answer. He’s been writing about the sometimes mystifying design quirks of everyday objects for years. This fall he has a new book, Living with Complexity, in which he defends the idea of complexity against the allure of oversimplification. It’s not complexity that’s the problem, Norman insists, its bad design!

Exhibit A: the Microsoft Outlook label making circus.

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