by Jim Lyons
The Hard Copy Observer, June 2007
Recently I’ve been using this column (the monthly "Observations" that also appears in The Hard Copy Observer) to explore some of the great marketing stories in our industry that provide examples of the seemingly simple process of identifying a customer need and then developing products and/or services that meet that need. However, understanding user needs is often much more difficult than it sounds. Small companies typically lack the resources to research and fully understand customer needs. In large companies, employees often underestimate the impact of their intimate knowledge of a market or they may be insulated from the market in other ways. For example, best-selling author Tom Peters provided an anecdote some 25 years ago about executives at the Big Three automobile manufacturers in Detroit and their inability to recognize that Japanese automobiles were making major inroads in the United States market. The executives were blind to the fact that they lived in an artificial market where they drove company-provided American cars and parked in corporate parking lots among employees’ company-provided American cars. The same nearsightedness can affect printing and imaging companies despite a heritage that includes HP’s "Next Bench Syndrome."
In a change of pace, I am "zooming out" a bit this month to examine the underlying fundamentals around user needs and the printed page. My goal for this column is to provide a little insight into current and future customer needs, with the hope that enterprising vendors, big or small, can anticipate these changes and be there first with good solutions. In accordance with some rather lofty marketing theories, one can argue that printer customers do not really buy printers, per se -- they buy printed pages that are produced on demand as transparently as possible, with the printer hardware and software playing the role of the middleman. If the printer does its job in a satisfactory manner it will be virtually invisible while cleanly, quickly, and painlessly producing printed pages.
So how are those printed pages being used and how has their use changed? Can we see from past changes what the future might bring?
First, let us start in the home and home office. A 2006 Lyra Research study of 265 U.S. home laser printer customers is one of my favorite recent examples. The users ranked their most popular printing applications, and, as expected, text documents surpassed all other categories and accounted for 90 percent of all printing applications. Printing e-mail correspondence and printing driving directions rounded out the top three printing applications, followed by spreadsheets, Web pages, news articles, presentation slides, and high-resolution photos. The driving directions response (at 41 percent) is a significant change that would not have happened a few years ago, but will most likely peter out a few years down the road (pun intended). It seems likely that the increased popularity of in-vehicle and personal GPS systems will substantially reduce the need to print and carry hard-copy directions.
That is one example, but what about photos? In the home laser printer study, printing high-resolution photos ranked low on the list of printing applications. It is fair to assume, however, that photo printing would score much higher among home ink jet printer users—for now, anyway. The story is changing with each new generation. It is easy for us in the printing industry to get caught in the traditional thinking that "real photo = printed photo," and that all those digital images captured via digital still cameras and camera phones are just waiting to be pulled out of their digital memory and converted to print. Not so -- people and their relationship to photos has been evolving. I recently weeded through family archives in the fun but distressing process of deciding which family photos to keep and which ones to toss. As it turns out, many of my best and most treasured family photos were not printed, but captured on 35 mm slides. Archives of color prints as the dominant personal photo archive is really only about a three-decade long phenomenon.
And what about document printing among the younger generation? No less than Vyomesh Joshi, executive vice president of HP’s Imaging and Printing Group, was recently quoted in a New York Times article as saying that his college-age daughter told him, "I don’t need a printer." Not surprisingly, Joshi admitted that this attitude scares him. Like many people of her generation, she lives online and finds it unnecessary or too difficult to put bits onto paper. As a recently hired college faculty member of a graduate-level business program, I am learning that among my students a college "paper" may rarely, if ever, be reduced to hard copy form, even through the review and grading process.
Ed Crowley, president of the Photizo Group, previously commented on managed print services (Observer, 04/07) and shared his views on the changing role of paper as it affects the corporate world. He maintains that paper’s role in information dissemination and storage is virtually obsolete, and its primary use now is to aid information consumption. For example, a report arrives via e-mail, a user prints all or part of the report to read or take along to a meeting, then disposes of or recycles the paper rather than archiving its physical form. In the optimist’s way of thinking, this could actually increase printing and paper consumption, as the same documents may be printed more than once. However, I do not buy that argument. Instead of employees copying and distributing an entire report, I see folks printing only a couple of pages, a chapter, or the executive summary.
If this is all a little too "doom and gloom," do not be discouraged. I’ve mostly identified existing print applications that may be on the decline. What new applications will drive incremental prints? I will continue to explore that question in future columns.