Self-reflections at the self-checkout

I created a Medium account a few months ago to follow some of the great content on this site, but it’s taken me a long time to find something worth writing about. What I’ve noticed is that a lot of writers on this platform that I like to read have a brilliant way of weaving a touch (or more) of personal narrative into topics that also affect their professional lives. For example, when Bianca Wylie from the Open Data Institute discusses the serious challenges of governing smart cities, or when the Ontario Digital Service commits to only being part of events that demonstrate an explicit effort to be diverse and inclusive, I know that these are also issues that the writers care about.

So I knew that for my inaugural post, I needed to do the same. I wanted my readers (whoever you are) to know that I wasn’t going to use this space just to ramble and I’ll only be writing posts that I think can inspire some thoughtful conversation. With that in mind, in the time that I’ve had my Medium account, a few ideas have popped up here and there but nothing felt important enough for an inaugural post.

But then a few days ago (Friday, December 1st), I had a genuinely baffling experience that for professional and personal reasons I would like to better understand, and I would appreciate if anyone could shed some light on.

Here’s the scene: it’s 6:30pm on Friday evening and my brother and I are at Yonge and College (point A). We are looking for somewhere to pick up flowers for our aunt for a family dinner that starts at 7pm in the Lawrence and Bathurst area (point B). Getting from points A to B by TTC requires taking the subway from College to Lawrence then take the connecting 52 Lawrence bus to Bathurst and walk the few hundred metres to our aunt’s house. To do that in 30 minutes was a daunting task but we were up for the challenge.

Luckily as we were approaching the Shoppers Drug Mart on the northeast corner of the intersection we noticed a bucket of beautiful bouquets in the window, so naturally we headed inside. As a bonus, this was also quite literally the closest store to the subway entrance so if we had any hopes of making it on time, this was really our best shot.

My brother tells me he needs cash and there is an RBC ATM steps away from the bucket of flowers. Both of these are located relatively far away from the cashiers, where I notice about about a dozen people in line, 3 or 4 transacting cashiers and 5 free self-checkout scanners (none of which had error messages). Thinking about how to run this mission most effectively, I offer to grab the flowers while he’s getting his cash, and I head to the self-checkout.

I complete the routine task of scanning one item and paying with Visa tap in maybe 30–40 seconds as the dozen or people who are in line stand still and stare. During the course of my transaction, no one in line has moved and as I feel them looking at me, and potentially judging me for having skipped their pain of waiting, I’m left wondering why no one took the cue.

I realize this situation isn’t black and white, and context matters a lot to me, so here it’s important that I explain a few things:

1) I have a number of privileges that allow me to use this machine very efficiently, and it’s incumbent upon me to explicitly identify them:

a. In the last 6 months, a large part of my professional and personal lives have been spent gaining an understanding of how to design and test user experience (UX) functionality. In my case it’s for public-sector financial software — more on that another time, maybe — but I still recognize that I have come to possess a certain intuition for how to use these interactive machines and platforms.

b. I am a digital native and have spent most of the last decade becoming extremely familiar with touchscreen devices, mostly for personal use.

c. I do not have any issues distinguishing colours or letters on screen, nor do I have any issues with dexterity. I know this isn’t the case for everyone and I try hard to keep this in mind when I design or analyze designs. (By the way, today is also International Day of Persons with Disabilities!)

2) However, this is pretty basic technology and I was very comfortable using these machines before I started thinking about designing. Moreso, the self-checkouts at Shoppers function in the same way as self-checkouts I’ve seen elsewhere, including movie theatres, libraries and other retail stores like grocery stores and Wal-Mart. So from my perspective, there’s nothing specific or different about this Shoppers machine that would make it difficult for even a new customer to use.

I would imagine this is on purpose. If I’m leading a company who is looking to implement a self-checkout machine, I would want it to be intuitive so that customers see it as a way of making their shopping experience quicker and potentially more enjoyable; not something new they will have to learn how to use.

3) Though I only glanced quickly, the folks in line did not strike me as particularly old (mostly 30–40 year olds it seemed). And not that there is a necessary relationship between age and technical ability, younger generations, on average, will be more familiar with using touch devices for daily tasks than older ones will and theoretically find self-checkouts easy to use.

I think about some stories I’ve heard from young parents or aunts and uncles who have told me their children or nieces and nephews are navigating iPads as young as 18 months old. Physical ability notwithstanding, it is difficult for me to imagine that any child growing up today will not be familiar with these interactive platforms by the time they’re able to pay for stuff themselves. But is this limited to simple orders?

4) This particular Shoppers recently expanded their food section and this matters, but first an admission of slight hypocrisy. Very ironically earlier in the day I bought some pasta from the hot counter at Sobey’s for lunch. The container didn’t have a barcode or any markings and when I got to the checkout, I realized I didn’t know how to cash out an unidentifiable product. Luckily, there was an attendant standing by to help me out, which wasn’t the case at Shoppers.

5) When I was discussing this article with a few people prior to publishing, I heard some comments about some aversion to using self-checkouts if some items are on sale or the customer has a coupon. Someone also told me that at Shoppers’ self-checkout you have to scan the loyalty card (Optimum) before scanning your first product. This was not clear from my interaction with the machine.

Points 4 and 5 are meant to indicate that depending on which products one buys, an interaction with a self-checkout could be quite cumbersome and for that transaction, the pain of waiting outweighs the pain of having to fumble around with the machine. There was no way for me to tell how many customers in line fell into these categories but Point #4 seems moot here since there is no hot counter at Shoppers and even the produce has scannable barcodes. On the other hand, Shoppers has a popular loyalty program, and often has coupons and items on sale, so there is a very real possibility that Point #5 was an important factor. Customers want to make sure they get the full value for what they purchase.

As I mentioned before, context matters to me a lot, and above I have tried to identify a number of reasons why the people in line wouldn’t have used the machine. But still, I remain curious by what I saw on Friday and I want to try to understand it. Did everyone in line fall into one or more of the categories (physical ability, knowledge of the platform and/or complex purchase order) I mentioned above? It’s possible but that seems like a relatively low-probability situation.

There is another possible explanation I would like to highlight here. In a recent “scan and go” pilot at a Wal-Mart in Ancaster, Ontario a customer told CBC News that she doesn’t support this new technology because it means people will lose their jobs. I remember reading this article when it came out in October and that comment really stuck out to me. The fear of losing jobs and meaning from automation is very real, and maybe some of those feelings were what enticed people to remain in line and wait for service…on a busy Friday night.

I don’t expect anyone to be able to explain to me why the line of people remained there and if I could go back (and weren’t in a rush), I would have asked people why they didn’t use the self-checkout for my own curiosity. On the other hand, taking a few days to analyze this situation in has been impactful for me too. It has allowed me to really think about the whole service design experience in retail and has provided me example #1817239187 of why technology doesn’t guarantee uptake, even if it’s easy to use.

If you have any insight into my experience or want to let me know about something I’ve missed, please leave a comment or tweet me @jonathan_kates!

P.s. We were very late for dinner. We got to the subway at 6:36 but then had to wait 5 minutes for the subway and only arrived at Lawrence for 7:05, so we were already late. To make matters worse, the transfer to catch the 52 was a 10-minute wait so my brother and I split an Uber and make it to dinner by 7:20. We should have left earlier.

P.s.s. If you are interested in the intersection of digital technology, accessibility and inclusion, make sure to follow the Public Policy Forum and the Ontario Digital Service as they prepare to launch a conference on the subject in February called the Ontario Digital Inclusion Summit. Hope to see you there!