Epson LabelWorks Printer (Bad Design)

The Epson LabelWorks label printer is a device for typing and printing label stickers like the kind you’d stick on file cabinets or mail boxes in apartment buildings.


The device’s design fails mainly in that it presents a system image that is both difficult to understand and far more complicated than the average user likely expects. I bought the label printer because I need to print labels for mailboxes. I’ve used it probably four times to type and print the following label stickers:


As a user, I’d expect the label printer to support three activities: 1) typing my message, 2) printing my message onto a label sticker, and 3) getting the label sticker out of the device upon completion of printing. The second and third activities are fairly clear: a prominent, color-coded print button allows for printing, and a similarly prominent cut button allows for cutting the label sticker and detaching the new label from the device.

The design, however, works overtime to make the first activity – typing a message—difficult. While the device has a typical keyboard, it also includes about 16 additional buttons marked with unintelligible (at least to me) symbols and abbreviations denoting unclear operations that appear to stray far from the task at hand. Some examples of unclear/idiosyncratic language or symbols found throughout the interface:


Norman might call this a gulf of execution – there’s a huge disconnect between my image of what the device should do (it should make labels) and should look like (it should probably look like a keyboard) and the system image presented by the design (is it a scientific calculator or what?). I imagine most of these buttons have to do with word processing functions – making letters all caps, changing fonts, setting font sizes, etc. Word processing is not uncommon; in fact it’s an everyday activity for many of us. Surely a design can accommodate these features in more conventional ways.

I found it interesting that the back panel of the device includes “quick tips,” essentially a glossary explaining what operations the symbols denote and how to perform them.


If the designers felt the need to incorporate an instructional panel like this, surely this should have raised flags that the design wasn’t entirely successful. Norman even mentions in his book how good design obviates the need for instruction; the design itself should include all the clues necessary for users to understand its operation.