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I have, in the last few months, had to endure these hideous devices. I dislike them because I find them intensely patronising "Invalid item in bagging area" - no it isn't, it is the item you have just scanned. There are others as annoying. And they are normally quite loud too. It strikes me that the UX is really poor - all of the issues that we thought we had progressed beyond years ago.

So my question is, why is the UX so poor, so far behind, for devices that are new and leading edge? Why do they not interact in a 2012 way, rather than a 1999 way?

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closed as not constructive by Benny Skogberg, JonW Apr 9 '13 at 19:58

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I feel your pain, but don't see an a constructive and useful question here. – Patrick McElhaney Jan 1 '12 at 13:44
The question is, why do new products like this not have substantially better UXs? – Schroedingers Cat Jan 1 '12 at 15:16
I think the question is how do the things make it to installation without seemingly being tested propertly ? This is expensive physical kit, which you can't just fix with a software upgrade... – PhillipW Jan 1 '12 at 22:12
@PhilipW - yes, and especially with this type of product wich is a new product, not hamstrung with historical requirements. It seems like a good opportunity to do it right. – Schroedingers Cat Jan 2 '12 at 10:44
@SchroedingersCat Could you please add a photo or some other context? Or is your question more a usability-process-related one? – giraff Jan 2 '12 at 15:31
up vote 5 down vote accepted

I think there are five main issues with auto-checkouts - each with its own particular cause.

Issue 1 The machine doesn't make smart decisions, or let me short cut its workflows - e.g. if I've entered a debit card, I automatically want to pay by card, but the machine insists I remove the card, press 'pay by card' and try again.

Possible cause? Designers who take for granted the workflow the supermarket imagines users will take rather than practical insights into the ways shoppers actually work. Lack of attention to the 'NATty principle' ('Never Ask Twice').

Issue 2 Autocheckouts rely too much on human supervisors arbitrating decisions, when assistants are usually in short supply and often busy directing customers to terminals.

Possible cause? Miscommunication about the context of the product. I strongly suspect that whereas the designers were assured that supervisors would always be on hand to help, supermarkets have 'sold' the service internally as a way to reduce supervisor workload. That would mean staffing managers under-resourcing autocheckout lanes, yet designers assuming a supervisor will always be able to help.

Issue 3 Poor item detection. Too many items get flagged as 'invalid', and I have to get a supervisor to help.

Possible cause? Probably just limitations in item detection combined with excessive concerns about shoplifting and malicious users. Misunderstanding that failures make a serious impact in this context, because assistants are not always readily at hand.

Issue 4 Intolerant timeouts - if I'm having trouble bagging something, and I take a little too long, the entire terminal closes down, and I can't continue - even if I do eventually bag the item in question.

Possible cause? This could be simply a lack of practical research, combined with hasty assumptions about how long something 'should take' - when research will indicate something very different.

Issue 5 Cannot rebag items; performs poorly when I have multiple bags.

Possible cause? Hasty assumptions that I would never remove an item from a bag after I'd bagged it, and that I'd always have one small basket - in other words, assumptions that I'd work to the workflow the designer or supermarket imagines is likely, not what actually happens in practice. Inability to accept alternative workflows.

How could the designers have done better?

  • better thinking about the pragmatics of deployment, and not assuming the availability certain resources (supervisors to assist; maintenance to keep touchscreens clean and thus responsive)
  • field research into how undirected shoppers will actually proceed; healthy scepticism about assumptions regarding workflows and behaviour
  • better handling of failures in workflows; better research into impact of 'lockdowns'
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With regards to issue five; I hate it when I bring my own bags and they make it impossible to use them. – user6561 Jan 1 '12 at 20:53
Lack of research seems to be a common theme. It is just sad that in this day and age, no-one bothered doing the basic research. – Schroedingers Cat Jan 2 '12 at 16:31

My suggestion for them would just be to give Joe Public a simple display; a hand held scanner; a card terminal and a flat workbench area to work on.

People are quite capable of using a scanner without the machine trying to control the transaction. I think a lot of the problems come from the constrained physical layout.

The transaction really should be quite simple, and the machine doesn't need to control it:

1 - Scan items 2 - Insert Card and Pay.

The only complication required is a 'remove button item' for anything scanned in error.

Rather than all the 'bagging area' weighing problems, the issue of stopping people not paying for stuff would be dealt with by having a very visible camera and possibly a monitor showing the customer what the camera is recording.

Not only would this arrangement be easier to use - but it would also be a lot cheaper to build !

  • And the actual answer to the question is: UX people aren't involved in their design. (presumably)
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Maybe the real answer is: the engineer got conflicting requirement analysis. "We need to trust the user, but control him anyway", is a bad starting assumption. – giraff Jan 2 '12 at 15:34
What you are proposing is far better! UX principles clearly shown, that the main route is the straightforward one, and then allowing for exceptions ( deletions etc ). – Schroedingers Cat Jan 2 '12 at 16:29

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