Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Tripped Up by Self Service Technology

By Dennis D. McDonald

I am a sucker for self service technology. I like using ATM’s (even for making deposits), I always try to use the self service checkout at Home Depot (unless I’m buying mulch), and I like using the kiosks at the local movie theater. But my recent bad experience at the big grocery store on Duke Street here in Alexandria has made me question using the self service line for food purchases. Here’s what happened.

Sunday afternoon. I had about a half a basket of stuff to check out. No beer, no wine, and nothing that would require I get help or assistance from staff. Or so I thought.

I waited in line behind a lady with about an equal amount of stuff, only her basket included a couple of cases of water as well. No problem, I thought.

She went through, paid, and went to the end to bag. I stepped up to the screen and pressed ENGLISH. Nothing happened – just a message REMOVE ALL ITEMS FROM BAGGING AREA TO CONTINUE. Huh? She was busy bagging her stuff, but I couldn’t proceed. I pressed the onscreen button a few more times. Nothing. Just the same message.

Then I wondered, wasn’t there some sort of arm that comes across the belt to block the bagging area? I assumed the arm was switched in some fashion to allow me to proceed with my transaction. I walked over to her (she was now furiously bagging and clearly embarrassed). But there was no bar and neither of us could see any way a bar or lever could come across to trip the ‘end of transaction’ switch.

I went back to the screen and tried again – still no action.

The light at the top of the area started blinking and a message appeared HELP IS BEING CALLED. We both waited a few more seconds and a lady with a card on a chain appeared. She swiped the card on the reader. Then she walked to the end of the belt where she pushed the cases of water down; they had been blocking the arm that closed off the bagging area, and the REMOVE ALL ITEMS message went away at my end.

By now there were people lining up behind me – this was a Sunday afternoon, probably the worst time of  the week for food shopping dues to the crowds. Anyway, I started scanning away; no problem. But I did leave about ten bagged produce items at the end for lookup (I was doing a chicken and vegetable stir fry).

That was another mistake. I suddenly realized that the touch screen interface left something to be desired about quickly finding everything. Are bean sprouts under beans or sprouts? Is ground coffee filed under coffee, beans, or ground coffee? Are green beans under beans, green, or green beans? What kind of loose mushrooms did I have? Are these things onions, green, green onions, or scallions?

I could tell the lady waiting behind me was getting fed up, and I have to admit that, despite my usual comfort with technology, I was beginning to feel pretty stupid about the time I was taking with such simple transactions. Oh, for a mouse and keyboard, I thought to myself, not this clunky touch screen interface with its sluggish page displays!

But I finally finished the transactions, and the lady waiting behind me – who at one point had even reached around me to push the “beans, green” button before I finally saw it – breathed a sigh of relief. I pressed the FINISH AND PAY onscreen button and swiped my credit card on the credit card reader which was located to the left of the main screen. The card reader asked for the transaction type and I pressed CREDIT CARD on the card reader keypad. The message PROCESSING appeared and I lifted the pen, ready to sign.

PROCESSING just stayed there. Nothing happened. Huh? What’s the problem? I could now tell that people behind me were REALLY getting impatient and thinking, “Here’s some old guy, can’t figure out how to use technology, and now he’s trying to use a bad credit card!”

The store lady with the card on a chain around her neck came by again. Turns out I was using the wrong display – I was supposed to use the main touch screen to tell the system what kind of card I had, not the card reader, silly!  I decided not to make a comment about “poor interface design,” finished the transaction, and slunk out the door.

Silly stuff, I agree. And I must admit I’m impressed with the fact that complex technology like this works as well as it does. But there are still some rough edges here, and “outlier” behavior like mine still causes problems.

The most serious issue in this case, I think, was a confusing interface between the card reader and the main touch screen. For some reason I never thought of moving my eyes 12 inches to the right to see that the system’s attention had switched back to the main screen after I swiped my card, and I immediately started to think about the system integration issues. Did, for example, the system developers take the cheep route and not plan out through a complete use case analysis of all the possible sequences of events – including the cases where the user’s eyeballs were still fixed on the card reader  display? And why was there a card reader display anyway? Why didn’t all interaction requirements pass through the main display, thereby reducing the likelihood for confusion?

I suspect I know the answer – cost. Why plan for that last 1% of transactions if their solution will increase development and testing costs beyond the allocated budget and schedule? We’ve all been there. We know there’s no such things as a perfect system and you can’t accommodate 100% of all possibilities.

It’s just that I hate to be the one left holding the bag with people lining up behind me and breathing down my neck!

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