I have a dilemma.  It is one that puts me in direct conflict with myself, and is remotely related to my post from November about where to draw the line when helping patrons.  We received a new printer/copier for student use back in October.  It has a document server that allows students to select the document they want to print and combines that with a coin-operated printing system.  For the most part, it works exactly the way it should, and should save me having to take printing payments every few minutes.


However, even after two months of usage, students still look on it with fear and trembling and ask my help over and over and over again.  I have a large sign with step-by-step instructions, complete with pictures of all the relevant bits.  It’s a four step process.  Put your money in.  Press the “Document Server” button.  Use the touch screen to highlight your document.  Press Start.  I even have instructions at each computer workstation: Print as you would normally.  Walk to the printer.  Follow the instructions printed there.


But this is what actually happens: the student prints, then comes to me at the desk.  “Did my syllabus print?”  I point to the large printer four steps to my left, and show them the instructions on the wall above the machine.  I continue my work (or my discussion with the student I am helping) and listen for the sounds of the printer.  As soon as I am free again, I look over.  The student is usually still standing there, staring at the machine.  I walk over, and ask them if they need help.  They have a panicked look, and say “I don’t know what to do!”  I walk them through, step by step.  “Oh – I didn’t see the instructions,” is quickly followed by “That was easy!” 


OK, I get that initial reaction.  New technology can be intimidating.  There’s a fear of breaking the machine, or messing it up somehow.  But the same student will come back two hours later and we will repeat the process, almost word for word.  I spent over *four hours* yesterday showing the nursing students – over and over – how to use the printer.  And they used it last semester!


However, even after two months of usage, students still look on it with fear and trembling and ask my help over and over and over again.  I have a large sign with step-by-step instructions, complete with pictures of all the relevant bits.  It’s a four step process.  Put your money in.  Press the “Document Server” button.  Use the touch screen to highlight your document.  Press Start.  I even have instructions at each computer workstation: Print as you would normally.  Walk to the printer.  Follow the instructions printed there.


So I ask those wiser than myself: how do you teach folks how to use the technology so they become self-sufficient? More importantly, is there some kind of trick to creating printed instructions that actually are useful to a new user?  I really do want to help, but I also can’t afford to spend half of every day just helping people print. 


17 thoughts on “Purgatorio”

  1. Somehow, this problem reminds me of an experience that I had with a library web site some years ago. One of my colleagues told me how frustrated she was that things were difficult to find on the library web site–she had had one student come back repeatedly on a Sunday afternoon to ask her how to get to the library catalog. When we did usability testing on the site, we learned that the front page was so filled with links that people couldn’t find the one they needed.

    Since I can’t see your set-up there, I have to wonder why the student couldn’t see the instructions. Are the instructions near a bunch of other signage? Is the sign placed too high or low for people of average height to see immediately? I’d be tempted to ask the next patron who needs help about what could be done to make the instructions and the technology more accessible–it might be really helpful.

  2. If you get a good answer, I’d love to hear it. We’ve had our printers for a long time and still get a lot of calls for help. Ditto with photocopiers.

    Some of the problem may be more on the design of the technology rather than the users or your instructions. For instance, our photocopiers don’t automatically switch paper trays when one is empty, which always ends up confusing students.

  3. A few thoughts:
    First, it’s amazing how blind patrons can be to signage (I’m thinking, here, of the many, many times I was tempted to take a photo of the half-dozen students milling about talking on their cell phones in front of the desk — often literally holding onto the “No Cellphones” sign — at a library where I used to work). I have no idea what the fix is there.

    I do wonder, though – maybe it would be helpful if the sign was made redundant. That is, maybe if there was also one near where you were sitting at the desk, and/or attached to the computer terminals provided by the library. A big title that says “NEED TO PRINT?” might also help.

    But then, my mind returns to the students dangling off the cellphones sign, and I wonder whether there’s anything to do but wait it out…eventually some of them will learn, maybe they’ll teach each other…

  4. I don’t know that there’s an easy answer to this, because it sounds like the students actively do not want to learn how to use the printer. Not only will they ask for help every single time, but they will resist your efforts to make them more independent. Having had similar experiences at our reference desk, I end up feeling obliged to be of service because I’m sitting right there. Providing help ends up enabling their bad behavior, but denying service seems contrary to the can-do reference librarian spirit, no?

  5. You’re right: with any change, there are going to be folks who need assistance. I would do everything I could to “coach” the person while s/he actually does the mechanics necessary to print the document. “Here, let’s go over to the printing station and see what to do next… Now, put your money in there…”

    I’d also check the instruction placement. If they’re above the screen where students select the Document Server, I might put a brightly colored “How does this work?” sign on the monitor with an arrow pointing to the instructions.

    Otherwise, yes, you’ll be doing this a lot, especially because it’s new. But each time you coach a student, you’re creating another helper, who can show his/her friends, and so on.

    Good luck!

  6. Exactly, onellums. That’s why I feel like I’m in purgatory – I want to help, but dadgummit, it’s not that hard! 😎

    Mollie, it’s the only signage on or near the copier. It’s in a 8×11 stand up frame sitting right beside the control panel. 22 point font. Very simple instructions (like “4. Press start”) My theory, from watching them out of the corner of my eye, is that they stare at the printer’s touch screen as though it will impart wisdom and knowledge, and never look four inches to the right. ::sigh::

  7. Do they have to use the touch screen? Could you cover it with a piece of paper with a arrow pointing to the instructions?

    We’ve just installed a new machine that allows patrons to purchase a card for printing or put money on their cards. The original instructions on the machine were baffling, and we asked them to change them (that can only be done from the company’s main office). We gave them the instructions we wanted, but they changed them to something completely different. So our Circulation Manager wrote up instructions and taped them directly on the machine, above the screen with the confusing instructions. That seems to be working. Of course, the machine is a goodly distance from either the Reference Desk or the Circulation Desk, so it’s easier to read the instructions than it is to ask for help.


    Maybe you should move the printer 🙂 .

  8. Alas, this library is too small to make much of a difference. ::grin:: I’m thinking it’s going to have to be tough love – sending the repeat offenders back with a “you can do it, I know you can!” I’ve finally empowered a couple of the nursing students (there’s a core group who spend several hours a day here working) and they’re starting to spreak the knowledge among their classmates. I’m hoping that will help, but so far I’m still spending WAY too much of my one-person-library time standing next to the copier.

  9. This sounds to me more like a system problem than a patron problem. Printing is something everyone does all the time and should require no directions. If your system (like the one in use at my library to save paper and toner) requires a series of out of the ordinary steps to do something that normally requires no thought, people *will* resist learning it. Hitting “print” and having no idea where the document is going to appear probably feels like purgatory to the patrons also.

  10. Honestly, I do take a hard line with some students because, I have found is that there are some students, when confronted with new tech, with continue to have someone else do it for them – over and over again – until that is no longer an option. they will only learn it when they understand that no one else will do it for them.

    So when I start seeing the same faces come up with the same question, I start telling them “Its just like it was when we walked through it last time, and the instructions are right there on wall, step by step, if you get stuck.” Amazingly, I watch them walk right over and do it.

    You can also encourage the students to show one another how to do it.

  11. libwitch, that’s exactly what I’m doing. And after two days of “tough love”, I’m starting to see a positive trend. (Susanna crosses her fingers and hopes!) But I also think Elisabeth is on to something… the sign and instructions can be completely obvious and simple, but folks will simply ignore them. So I sit, in agony, as someone I’ve helped several times stares fixedly at the printer. And finally (if my willpower holds out!) they print what they need and are more confident next time they have to print.

    But it’s good to know it’s not just me having this problem….. whew!

  12. Regarding blindness to signage:

    We want people only to exit through one set of doors, the one on the right, because if they exit through the one on the left, it messes up our patron counter.

    The door on the left features several large, brightly colored signs, including one red, stop sign-shaped sign that says (imagine) STOP.

    I think that if we did a study, there would be NO difference between how much the doors are used to exit — by students, faculty, et al. — in other words, I think the signs are actually invisible.

    Even the one that looks like an official stop sign. This makes me a little nervous when I drive…

    It might be that the students need to not only read the instructions, but use different forms of learning as well — physically go through the steps with you reassuring them, be verbally told the steps, etc. … Maybe more than one form of input would help.

  13. I have generally found that signs that tell people what to do are more effective than those that try and prevent something – general principle. On the copier question, observing users is very informative – if they stare at the screen (not the sign) put something in the frame where they are looking to get their attention. And, use task oriented language – “To Print” … I’m also a fan of – “oh, okay, I’ll be over in a second – if you could start working through the directions on the sign I’ll be there in a moment” to try an empower. My two cents…

  14. Here’s a problem that I always have an easy solution to.

    People love to hear what to do from people. Paper won’t teach some people, neither will machines. Unless you say it, they won’t have any idea.

    It never changes, no matter how much time passes, no matter how advanced we as a people become. Still need someone to explain what’s 1 + 1 to begin with. Can’t start with a piece of paper saying the answer. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people like this.

  15. In my experience I find that students are creatures of habit and 8 times out of 10 they would rather have the person behind the desk do as much for them as possible even after you explain the process for the millionth time and you even observe them doing it, a few hours/days later they ask you how to do same thing that you saw them do all over again. While there are individuals who really do need aid in going through the process, more times than not they just want something done as quickly as possible and figure it is faster to get the person at the desk to do it and wait for the person to do it even though it may be faster just doing it just the way they have been taught the last time.

  16. Another solution might be to hire a work-study student worker to be on hand during busier times. We have student workers who staff our lab area in the afternoons and evenings, and it frees up a lot of our time to get other work accomplished. The student workers would be able to lead patrons through the printing process, and can also make sure that the paper and toner are stocked, clear jams, etc. (and can do this for other machines as well). In addition, maybe a student helping another student might be more effective in getting them to remember how to do it themselves (although we have not found this to be the case!)

  17. Sounds like your print system is unnecessarily complex. We use GoPrint here. First time users may need help but it isn’t something we have to keep teaching. Each station is clearly labeled with a number, that number is reflected at the pay station and the touch screen is intuitive. We have a sign at the station that provides word and graphical instructions. A few words, a few images. It’s not a problem here and we are a university that has lots of first generation college students and technology-phobic students.

    Talk to some fresh eyes and try to see what they see.

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