Do agencies unfairly assume that households have working printers?

While chatting with government folk in Victoria yesterday, the topic of printable PDFs in websites came up. Many agencies have them – large documents designed to be read on paper, rather than screen, and designed accordingly.

It made me ask the question: How many households actually have working printers and are able (and willing) to print large documents or forms?

The folks in the meeting couldn’t answer, although one admitted that he didn’t actually have a printer at home (despite working in an online capacity for the government).

This has now begun to intrigue me. is there an assumption in government agencies that every household that owns a computer must own a working printer as well?

Is there any evidence to justify this?

I’ve done a bit of looking today for statistics that might answer this question.

What have I found? Nothing that really answered it.

We have plenty of statistics from the ABS, Finance and other agencies and corporate entities on the number of households with computers and with internet access.

However none provides information on the number of printers in a household, whether they work or whether (given the cost of ink and supplies) people are prepared to print out those large documents with beautiful glossy full-colour images.

The most recent information I could find was from an e-waste brochure from Manly council, quoting the ABS as saying that in 2011, between households and businesses, Australians had around 5 million printers.

Given there’s over 1 million businesses and around 9 million households in Australia, that means that as many as 5 million households, over 50%, may not have printers and be unable to print out those lovely documents on government sites.

How realistic is that figure? When I consider my wife and I as a sample of two, it actually appears plausible (and I understand how statistically unreliable that is). While we are both professionals and knowledge workers, using computers and the internet as our primary tools – neither of us need to print often.

In fact my wife hadn’t had a printer for years before we married, she either did things online or printed individual forms at work on the unusual occasion where this was required (and it was usually a form for work anyway).

I have a working printer now as I need it for work purposes. However until February this year I had also lived for several years quite happily without a working printer.

I had, however had a non-working printer. Why non-working? Because supplies were expensive and scarse. Printer manufacturers changed their cartridges when they changed their printers – making older printers harder to buy for. Why did I keep it? Because I might need a printer (although I never did until the supplies for it became impossible to buy).

So should agencies provide big documents on their sites under the belief that people will print them out at home?

Should they expect people to fill in forms online, and then print and sign them?

Perhaps – perhaps not. However it would be nice to see agencies making this decision based on evidence, rather than based on the assumption that every household with a computer has a working printer.

Trevor Clarke has just let me know that his employer, IDC, tracks the movement of printers into Australia every month and quarter and reports on the number of households with printers. He tells me via Twitter that:
“IDC research shows 76% have 1 printer, 18% have 2. Only 7% don’t use. Survey of 2000 Australian households in 2012”

So there’s is some evidence that most Aussie households have printers. Good to know!

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Terrance Glover

I like the point that you raise by asking a plausible question. It warrants further study and research that may reshape the work environment at home. I periodically work from home but print all work related items on our office printer when I am able. All other times, documents are usually saved on my harddrive until I need to print it in the office or send electronically. How do employees cope when their job requires more frequent printing and they work from home? Does the employer provide the printer as part of the necessary work equipment?