bp default image

Potholes in Paradise

The perils of automating communications about workflows

Over the past couple of months, I've written two articles for The Big Picture about the promised benefits of automation to the printing workflow. The first was May/June's "CIMply Marvelous;" the second on "Computerizing Customer Relations" will appear in the July/August issue. Both articles touched on the idea that when automated communications--such as filling in online forms to request quotes and submit jobs, and reading automatically generated e-mail to track the progress of a job--take the place of phone calls and coffee-fueled meetings, errors will be reduced and efficiencies realized.

Sounds great. But coincidentally, during this same period, I've been participating in the printing workflow as a customer, and my experience has made me take the promises of automation with a heaping teaspoon of salt. Automated communication might be really helpful--but only if the communication that's automated is clear in the first place.

I wound up a printing customer because I agreed to help a friend get his novel packaged and printed. He'd been trying to get it published as long as I'd known him, with no success. But in recent years he'd been reading about short-run digital presses, and he asked me if I could take his manuscript and another friend's sponsorship and turn them into 100 copies of his book. So I searched for appropriate printers, got a couple of bids, and chose a place in Canada that seemed like they knew what they were doing. The rep (let's call him Howie) was accommodating and responsive, the price seemed right, and the sample book he sent me looked good.

I laid out the book in good old PageMaker, and Howie sent me directions for how to FTP my files to them. I packaged the PageMaker files, the fonts, and the graphics into a Stuffit file, as instructed, and sent them off.

So far so good. After a few weeks, we got back what Howie called the "sample copy" for review. My friend read it and asked for some changes on 12 of the pages. I revised the PageMaker files accordingly and asked Howie what to do next. At this point, Howie passed me off to a woman in the preflight department--let's call her Susan.

Susan e-mailed me that "if you have 12 pages with corrections that are needed to be changed either you can send us those 12 pages only or you can send us the whole file...Please send only the PDF file which contains all the corrections...A hardcopy is needed of each page that is being changed."

I had asked if they could send me PDF files instead of printouts for proofing, and the answer seemed to be no; but it also sounded like they needed a PDF file of just the corrected pages for some other reason.

I set about creating such a file; unfortunately, when I was done, I noticed that some of the page breaks didn't match the sample copy. As I took a deep breath and prepared to do it again, it occurred to me that maybe I misunderstood or Susan misspoke--maybe she could use a PageMaker file. But did she need a PageMaker file of just the 12 changed pages? Or could she use the whole revised file? After a couple of e-mails and at least one phone call, I found out that yes, I could send her the whole PageMaker file.

But Susan's message also said I was supposed to send back the "digital proof." Hello? That was the first I'd heard that term--was that what Howie had called the "sample copy"? Yes, as it turned out. It's a good thing we'd kept it intact and hadn't written on it. I mailed off the proofs of the corrected pages along with the sample copy/digital proof, and uploaded the revised files. Last I heard, everything got there in good order.

Maybe you're reading this and thinking I'm a doofus for not understanding what I was supposed to do. Well, you might be right--but I'm a pretty well informed doofus who's been covering digital prepress for many years now. If I didn't get it, I wonder how many others of their customers wind up confused.

But what does it say about automating the printing workflow? If a company sometimes refers to a product as a "sample copy" and other times as a "digital proof," what good is automating that communication going to do? It's just going to lead to quicker, more efficient confusion. Workflow automation is based on humans interacting with computers, and there's at least one old saying that still holds true: garbage in, garbage out.

View more from this Big Picture issue