fennelSearch is indisputably the de facto way we navigate the internet. More and more, it's creeping into our offline lives as well. As far back as a decade ago, studies were commissioned on how television viewers searched on-screen program guides, for example. Aspects of search, user experience and usability are now creeping into even more non-digital and mundane aspects of life.  Even shopping for groceries.

Case-in-point: Self check-out machines have become a common sight at big box retailers, and recently they've started to appear in grocery stores as well. They afford both efficiency and cost-savings for retailers, right?

Not without the intervention of keyword and usability experts they don't.

The other day I nipped into a Manhattan supermarket to buy fennel.  I also encountered my first grocery store self check-out machine. Packaged items with scannable UPC codes are all well and good insofar as automated check-out is concerned. So is conventional produce sold by the pound -- the thing had a built-in scale. But fennel is not the most common produce item, and this particular fennel was priced per piece.

Following the instructions, I scanned postage-stamp sized images of produce but only the stuff sold by weight. Shunted to another menu, I was instructed to type the name of what I was attempting to buy. Easy: "fennel." No such thing, according to the machine. Recalling the sign on the display read "asian fennel," I typed that.  Another fail.

"Please wait," the machine instructed me. For what? It wasn't telling. Nothing happened. As I sought the store manager, the already-long line behind me swelled with holiday shoppers. The manager, in turn, had to find still another employee who regarded me with a mixture of scorn and pity. Of course what I typed didn't work. According to The Food Emporium's top-secret, proprietary lexicon, I was purchasing "anise fennel." No other keyword or phrase combination would ever unlock the self check-out device.

Forget trying to explain to an indifferent grocery clerk that "anise" and "fennel" are two completely different things. That in point of fact, "anise fennel" does not exist, at least not in this time/space continuum. (Would I have to type in "golden ripe bananas," I wondered, if I wanted to buy a "banana"?). There's no suggestion feature on the screen along the lines of Google's "did you mean...?" What would happen, for example, were you to try to check out an apple? Must the modifier go first, e.g. "macintosh apple" "granny smith apple" or would it come afterwards: "apple, granny smith" and "apple, macintosh"?

This is stuff search professionals, usability experts and developers have spent years figuring out. And let's not forget the importance of multi-culti marketing acumen. Given the astronomically hight number of Spanish speakers in this country, plenty of shoppers are bound to try to check out "hinojo" rather than "fennel," particularly in large metropolitan areas.

Self check out is bound to be only the beginning of offline opportunities for digital media professionals. As screens large and small proliferate in more and more aspects of our lives so will opportunities for the professionals whose skills are geared at building bridges between the technology and human end-users.

Wikipedia says the efficiency of self-service check out machines "requires that the customers using the machine be reasonably competent."

Sorry, but I don't buy that. The manufacturers of these and similar devices need to buy our services - not only for efficiency's sake, but for basic customer service.

Rebecca Lieb

Published 4 January, 2010 by Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca Lieb oversees Econsultancy's North American operations.

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Comments (3)

Roberto Simi

Roberto Simi, Managing Director at Bright Digital

Measuring the effectiveness (or lack of) will probably drive the need to improve the interfaces. Online retailers relying on increasing revenues soon learnt the importance of customer journeys once reliable measurement tools were in place. This quickly led to a shift in control of how a site was designed away from the technically minded developers to information architects and the usability professionals of today.

With offline self check-out terminals it is a similar situation to the proliferation of digital signage and interactive systems that are starting to appear in smaller venues  such as hotel lobbies, local shops and bars. It seems clear many of the interfaces are designed by the developers coding the systems and controlled by technical companies supplying the hardware and networks. The retailers need to ensure analytic tools are in place so that it is obvious to them that they are losing revenues/customer loyalty etc. Then the pressure will be on the manufacturers to bring in the usability experts.

over 8 years ago


Arnab Sen

LOL. I've never seen a self check out machine at a supermarket but anyone who's got into an infinite loop in a IVR or a self service bill payment kiosk will know that offline digital interfaces are aeons behind and have a lot of catching up to do.

over 8 years ago


Julie Francis

Thank you for a great article Rebecca!  

The only reason I haven't experienced similar "anise fennel" angst in my local supermarket is because when I have produce in my hands, I steer clear of those machines to dodge the exact frustration you describe.  And how many others of us who would otherwise love the speed and ease of self-checkout also dodge those machines when we have armfuls of produce?  If the stores really want to steer traffic away from their cheerful (or not) clerks, they'll have to take this element of the user experience more seriously.  

Another thing they didn't consider when they designed those contraptions is the "bring your own bag" movement.  Ever tried to use a self-checkout machine and put groceries into your own bag?  the machine detects the weight of your bag and thinks you are stealing.  The work around is to completely check out (stacking your groceries elsewhere in the process), and when you are completely done *then* you can put them into your own bag.  Why not a "I brought my own bag" button to re-calibrate before you start scanning items?  

I bet an immersive bulletin board ethnographic-lite study would have caught the anise-fennel issue, and it would have caught the "byo-bag" issue, too.    How many people experience produce-trauma and now won't use those self-check machines, and what is the cost to the company that created the machines, thought it couldn't afford user experience testing, and is now not hitting its conversion goals?  at my stores, those machines usually sit unused.  

Thanks to your article, I'm fired up to head to my store and try checking out with all sorts of hard-to-spell and hard-to-remember produce -- perhaps I'll start with daikon!

over 8 years ago

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