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Our local grocery store recently got one of these automated checkout counters. I don't know how prevalent they are, I assume if they've shown up in Vermont, then they've already shown up everywhere else on God's green earth.
The idea is that you walk up with your groceries, scan and bag them yourself, and then pay the machine. It cunningly detects whether or not you are a shoplifter. You save time, the grocery store can fire some minimum-wage tellers, and everybody is happy.
But the interface sucks rocks.
For one, check out the number of widgets on the thing (you can click the image for a bigger version). There's a big touch screen on the left, with instructions on how scan your items. Under that is the scanner, with a built-in scale. Over to the right, there's a smaller screen with instructions on swiping your credit or debit card. In between the big screen and the little one are a slot for putting in coupons, a slot for putting in paper money, a slot for putting in coins, a slot that spits out your receipt, and a little dish that returns your coins. And way the hell over to the left, under the scanner part, down near knee level where you will never see it, is a tray that spits out paper money.
To make the multimedia experience complete, there are also two hidden interface elements - a speaker that tells you what to do, and weight sensors under the metal racks for holding the bags that detect whether you've properly bagged your item. But more about those later.
All in all, there are thirteen different components, not counting the on-screen widgetry on the touch screen. It is unclear to me why, in the year 2003, we must have separate slots for inserting cash, getting cash back, getting a receipt, and entering coupons, instead of some kind of composite slot good at handling thin papery things. It would seem within the scope of our modern technology to have one slot do all four - in fact, with a little DARPA funding it would seem possible to incorporate the coin slot as well, creating a kind of Grand Unified Slot. The mind shivers.
But the slots are small potatoes. Much worse than excessive slotting is how the little coin return bin is positioned way the hell back, above, and well to the right of the tray where you get your cash returned to you. The devices are nearly two feet apart. Since all the payment options take place on the the right side of the machine, you have to remember to elbow your way over the left, past the person getting ready to use the machine, and collect your bills from their little nook below the scanner.
What makes this particularly infuriating are the half-assed attempts by the designers to clear up what they knew was a terrible design. Not only is there a little sign next to the coin tray pointing you to the cash return bin, but the cash bin itself has an enormous "Cash Out" sign stuck over it right at groin level, just to serve as a reminder. If you step far back from the touch screen and scanner where you do all of your work, you can actually see it. And there is even a duplicate little baby "cash out" label under the big one, just to rub it in your face that the whole business was thrown together by monkeys.
I carp about the cash out bin because you inevitably forget it exists, pay for $19.85 worth of groceries with a hundred-dollar bill, absent-mindedly leave the store with the handful of nickels that plonks out into the little tray while the machine is spitting out eighty bucks in change over in the next time zone. Except that none of this happens, because (as the hand-lettered yellow sign taped next to the dollar slot graciously tells you) the machine will not accept hundred-dollar bills.
But that's not even the best part. The best part is that the machine is paranoid and will accuse you of theft at the slightest opportunity. The white platforms where you are supposed to stand your bags rigged to be weight-sensitive. After you scan each item, you have to drop it in to the bag on the platform, so the machine knows you haven't surreptitiously pocketed it ("But if I already scanned it, why can't I just..." No! No item for you!). Even if you're only buying a stick of gum, you have to open a bag and drop it in. And if you're buying more than three bags' worth of groceries, you're out of luck - take a bag off before paying, and it sounds the alarm. Try to scan a big item, like a sack of cat litter, or some firewood, or a case of soda, without putting it into the bag, and the alarm sounds. Shop with an eco-freak like the better half, with her reckless canvas bags, and spend the night in jail. Wait too long before dropping an item in - alarm time. Try to rearrange the items in a bag - BZZZZZZZZ!
When the alarm sounds, you get a pleasant display saying "Please wait for security check". And then a fifteen year old comes over, enters her secret password on the touchscreen in front of you, and hits "Reset" without even looking, because she has to do this fifty times a day.
And of course, if you actually want to steal anything, all you have to do is not scan it in the first place.
All in all, a great Bronx cheer to the Shaw's automated checkout.
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maciej @ ceglowski.com
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