Written for Kinneir Dufort: http://www.kinneirdufort.com/blog/towards-better-supermarket-service-design

‘Unexpected item in bagging area. Please remove this item, before continuing.’  This is the third time she’s said that to me and I’m starting to get frustrated. Why is it unexpected, love? I scanned it ten seconds ago and you knew what it was then.  I lift the box of eggs in and out of my shopping bag a few times to show willing, but to no effect. Reluctantly, I turn around and crane my neck, trying to spot that attendant, again. No luck though, she’s busy. An elderly lady is being taught the correct speed to scan muesli.

This was supposed to be a quick way to pick up a few groceries on my way home, so why am I now wishing I’d skipped the whole business and gone to the takeaway instead? Trying the eggs again, I accidentally knock an onion to the floor and it rolls out of sight underneath a nearby pushchair.

I admit, I was having a bad day, but my experiences using the self-service checkout in my local supermarket are a familiar story to many of us. I’ve found myself frequently looking on in sympathy as people very regularly trigger the red lights and loud alerts, muttering to themselves ‘I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.’ As a product designer, I can’t ignore the potential here for a better solution.

First introduced in New York in the late 1990s, self-service checkouts have been taken up in great numbers by UK supermarket retailers in the last few years, – this year  there will be 15000 machines in use across the UK according to analysts Retail Banking Research.

Despite incremental changes like touchscreen displays, manufacturers such as IBM and NCR have done little to improve the overall experience since they were first introduced. Customers in the UK need help using them so regularly, that there are almost always full-time staff stationed nearby to help bemused shoppers, and they are needed. This may be inevitable as customers get used to using something new, but the sheer amount of help needed indicate some serious usability issues.

Customers aren’t doing anything wrong – they know how to shop for groceries, they have many years of experience. The design of this system is simply not tailored to their needs…yet.  It will be there when self-service checkouts are intuitive and the vast majority of shoppers can use them without needing an attendant’s help each time. I think the concept is bold and I applaud supermarket retailers for taking a chance on something innovative, I just hope they don’t stop here when there’s so much to be gained from investing in better design.

The missing ingredient in this system is an understanding and appreciation of people’s shopping rituals – individual habits reinforced over many years – and the flexibility to cater for different users and scenarios. A student buying a sandwich for lunch in Tesco will not go through the same shopping process as a father of two buying a TV.

Right now, the major supermarkets are in an ideal position to enhance the design of this system. Most of the big players use identical machines with minor cosmetic GUI differences, so there is a real business opportunity in taking the initiative and doing it better than your rival.  In the same way designers get valuable insights from leaving the studio and observing real people using their products, so can supermarkets learn a huge amount from the thousands of self-service checkouts already installed up and down the country. As the major buyers of these systems, they have all the influence and their requests for change will prompt manufacturers to invest.

To give you a few examples – if a customer arrives with a handbag or other shopping bags, where can they put them whilst they use both hands for scanning groceries? Space is at a premium and things usually end up on the floor at our feet. A simple shelf above the display or a few hooks on front of the machine to hang bags would be enough and would cost very little. The chip and PIN machine used on checkouts is the same we use in other shops, but it is awkward to move from on-screen instructions to the little display on the PIN machine and back again. It’s a clumsy solution. Why not integrate things better and use the touchscreen throughout for smoother operation? Finally, why force every customer to use the same setup when each person has different shopping habits and grocery lists? Loyalty cards like Nectar and Clubcard are already scanned in as part of the process. If customers did this first, the machine could identify them and switch the display to their preferred settings. No more need to prove I’m 18 every time I buy wine or razors. How about the voice announcements are muted or spoken in my own language? Or what if my favourite groceries were available on-screen as big shortcut buttons, so I don’t have root through the menu every time looking for bananas?

self-checkout concept

If supermarkets listen carefully and base the new designs firmly around customer’s needs, this innovation could go from an awkward, clumsy machine to the fast and intuitive process we all want. People could actually enjoy using them because it makes shopping easier. There is massive potential here for increased business and customer loyalty, but only if supermarkets are prepared to put shoppers’ needs first and ask what ‘what can we do better for our customers?’