The joys of labelling – an orderly portable lab for £24.99

A portable label maker - hand-held with a Qwerty keyboard and some other buttons for adjusting the print
The Dymo 100 labelmaker

If you read my headline as “a portable lab for £24.99”, don’t get too excited. I still don’t know a way of getting a portable usability lab for under 25 quid other than reverting to good old paper and pencil for recording. I’m referring to the ‘orderly’ bit.

Let me give you some context. I bought my portable usability lab equipment back in 1998 when consumer DV video cameras first appeared. I paid £1599 for a dinky JVC that you could get today for peanuts. It was worth every penny: small, unobtrusive, works without any hassle and was my constant companion for ages. I bought various gadgets to go with it and the whole lot packs into a small satchel.

Roll forward to 2003. I’ve successfully persuaded my clients to get their own equipment. The camera rarely gets used these days. And then a job came along that might well need it. So I dug it all out to make sure I could remember how to make it work.

The pile of equipment on the meeting room table was not a pretty sight, but after a couple of hours, two consultations of manuals, three moments of panic and a visit to Tottenham Court Road (the area of London that has a big selection of electrical and electronic shops) for a missing cable I’d got it all working again.

Then to the fun part. A couple of years ago, my husband persuaded me to buy a Dymo Pocket labelmaker. (Current model: Dymo Labelpoint 100, similar machines available from Brother PT1250 or PT1750). I love it. It’s not at all like the old-fashioned ones where you had to turn a wheel to get the right letter and then push the punch, resulting in spelling mistakes and having to do the whole thing again. No, this little Dymo is a clunky hand-held with an alphabetic keyboard but it’s quite intuitive to use and creates very tidy strip labels. That’s the last time I’m going to lose a cable when I loan out the camera: they all have ‘EFFORTMARK’ on them now.

My favourite thing is making labels for plugs. Have you ever had to enlist a colleague when unplugging something? You’re under the desk pulling at power leads and shouting “is it this one?” while the colleague says “eh?” and “what did you want to unplug?”. And it’s always when the under-desk area hasn’t been vacuumed in weeks. Well, two minutes with my trusty Dymo and I’ve got a nice little label that says “video camera” or whatever. Sticks onto the back of the plug and saves lots of valuable time when packing up in a hurry.

Now that it’s all neatly packed away I have a mystery to solve. Why is it that I have a huge pile of S-Video cables? Do other cables turn into S-Video cables if you leave them alone in a drawer? Is there a world surplus, so manufacturers sneak one into every box just to get rid of them? And why are they always really long whereas the matching audio cables are always too short? Beats me.

Update: in December 2021.

Everything else in my portable usability lab has long since been dispersed. The lablemaker is still in frequent use, and I’d like to thank Dymo for continuing to make the cartriges that it uses – these days, three cartridges cost about the same as the whole labelmaker cost 20 years ago.

The area of Tottenham Court Road that used to house dozens of computer and electronics shops is now dominated by fast-food outlets and shops catering to tourists; only a couple of tiny shops remain.