Heal Your Church WebSite

Teaching, rebuking, correcting & training in righteous web design.

Usability and the Harris Teeter’s self-checkout carousel

“Self-service checkout systems have to be flawless. It only takes one bad experience to create an an ex-customer” – Gotcha! The Problems With Self-Service Checkout Systems, Baseline.com

Four bottles of Harris Teeter seltzer, slab-o-jarlesberg lite, some rice-cakes, box-o-ZipLoc, I’m ready to check out and head home for a relaxing Sunday evening … that is until I ran into one of them automated, U-Scan, self-service checkout carousel contraptions. I press the “Start Here” icon on the screen and then obediently swipe my Harris Teeter VIC savings card key fob thingie … I carefully remove a 33.8 oz bottle of sodium-free, caffeine-free mandarin orange seltzer so as not to tip the hand basket … which is too large for the surface provided for me at the convenient self-service checkout robot. I swipe … nothing … nothing … nothing.

Clerk walks up and tells me I need to start over again and swipe my key fob again. I look down the aisles and think I might have a better chance with a human … no luck, only 2 lanes and backed-up by other individuals avoiding an interface with frustration.

Back to a different machine to “Start Here,” card swipe, and then again with the bottle – only now my wife is there to make sure the basket doesn’t teeter off the squirrel-sized perch. Nothing happens. My wife tells me I’m not doing it right, but I look at the scanner and I can see that someone with some sloppy milk has fouled the scanner. A different clerk walks-up, yanks the bottle from my hand and holds it over the scanner – waits two seconds, completely still – two seconds later – beep – he walks away without saying a word – his disdainful body language screaming ‘moron.’

I call over to him “do I have to do this [wait 4 seconds routine] for each item?” He looks at me then looks down at his command and control console ignoring me. So like a good monkey, I also hold a bottle over the scanner in stop-action animation style similarly simulate the clerk’s wordless instructions to successfully get it to beep after another 5 seconds of my life have been wasted due to a dirty scanner.

Having already tried to get the help of the clerk both in word and with a kind wave, I drop the seltzer into the bag – hoping the thump will finally get the clerk’s attention so he’ll at least give me some Windex and a paper towel to do the dirty work myself – after all, it’s not like Harris Teeter isn’t already paying me to do their work. The clerk briefly gives me an admonishing glance then finds something else important to look at.

More slow-motion scanning until I get to the rice cakes. I scan them, put them in the bag and get “please wait for assistance.” To me its clear that the 3.52OZ of the Quaker Rice Snacks didn’t register on the anti-theft scale. Instead, said clerk startlesmy 5-year-old daughter – putting his hands on her shoulders and asks her not to touch the carousel – which she wasn’t doing. An action towards a defenseless member of my family that might have earned said individual a whole new checkout experience had I not been a peaceable man of God.

I take the rice cakes out and place them in the bag with a bit more velocity than usual. That worked!

Now comes the bananas – of course I have to squint at the screen and look for a picture that doesn’t display anything as common as the banana. Instead have to guess “miscellaneous fruit” out of a choice of 5 or 6 other blurry and overcrowded 150 x 75px collages of tropical delicacies with not-so-descript black labels against a dark green background.

Finally the ZipLocs. I’m almost done but what I didn’t see was that as I was scanning the box, my wife was simultaneously removing the bananas into a second bag. Again, “please wait for assistance,” again the clerk walks over with his arms again aimed at my daughter’s shoulders – she cowers towards mommy until I bellow not to touch her and shoot him an expression I haven’t conveyed since riding on the double-G train through the bad parts of Brooklyn at 3 PM some twenty years ago. The young man sulks away, unsure of why I’m upset.

So what has this got to do with Church websites?

Glad you asked, it all boils down to customer-centric, servant-hearted usability. If your church website forces your readers through a similar set of flaming hoops, then you can expect fewer return visits and emptier pews. For just as I’m inclined to take my shopping business across the street, so too may seekers dissatisfied with your online presence take their gifts and talents elsewhere.

For example, in doing some research I found an interesting pattern. Trade magazines tout these self-service checkouts and time-savers, sometimes quoting happy housewives as they breeze through the checkout line at Jeff Gordon speed. Yet when I add the word usability to my search phrase, I find several articles and comments bagging on the coupon belching behemoths, along with one post by a clerk whose job it is to “monitor four simultaneous transactions, handling problems, making change, monitoring security, teaching the newbies, helping the eternally clueless …”

Hmmm … so that’s how they perceive me? Perhaps that’s why Harris Teeter has at least for the duration of our transaction hired me, an experienced and hopefully better-paid systems analyst/usability expert to do their job? But I digress. Point #1, don’t treat your users like idiots. They’re usually better trained, better educated and have more of a clue than you think – but even if they’re not, they’re still the ones who put the money in your paycheck … or collection plate.

Along those same lines – work to solve the customer’s problems – don’t tell them yours. The HT clerk had no business touching, my daughter let alone accuse her of something she didn’t do. His job was to facilitate my shopping experience, not make me feel like a moron nor my daughter feel like she was a ‘bad girl.’ Train the people who maintain your church website that the customer comes first – or at least remind them that machines were made to be the servants of men and not the other way around.

Third, keep your equipment (and systems) maintained, clean and in good working order. Yes, I know the real reason we have self-service checkouts is because the one time cost of $24k + 4k in annual maintenance is still cheaper than hiring someone at $10/hour … it also cuts down drastically on theft, however there is no excuse for not keeping these machines working in top shape. I don’t mean to cry over spilt milk, but many, if not all of my frustrations could have been averted with some basic period maintenance. At least put a timer on the software that bugs the clerk to check the scanner after several consecutive failed – or overly long scan attempts.

Fourth, spend some money on usability testing. I didn’t even get into the screens, but there are several stupid ‘Split-Focus‘ things like “Yes/No” buttons top-to-bottom that asks if you have any under my shopping cart, immediately followed by “Yes/No” buttons left-to-right asking if I have any coupons, followed by a matrix of colored buttons representing about 12 different payment types. Be consistent, in color, in fonts, in layout and in verbage. Similarly, do some other smart things like not asking me to press “Start Here” and then scan my card. Initiate a shopping transaction as soon as I scan my card. Likewise, after about 7 or 8 times, learn my language preference and default to it.

I could go on along these lines, but I found several other articles that describe the usability issues in far better detail than I have time or space. For example, check out the experience of a usability expert over at ElectronicInk.com who evoked an AMEN out of me when he/she wrote:

“The other day, I had to pick up a few items from the grocery. I was with my 4-year old son, I was in a rush and I thought that I would save a few minutes by using the new computerized self-service check out lines. The experience was nothing like I expected it to be…

…I have enough stress in my life without being made to feel stupid at the checkout line in a grocery store!”

Of course my favorite find was the following snarky comment on the topic at the “Ravings of an Intermittent Fool:”

“I have not used – and WILL not use – a self-checkout aisle, until the stores provide me some sort of incentive (say a 10-15% discount on my entire purchase). My reasoning is that they are making ME do the job of the cashier, but they are still charging the same price as if they were paying a cashier. Until they spread the savings around, I will stubbornly stand in line to have my purchases rung up by a store employee.”

Here are some other interesting articles on the topic:

How about you? Like’m, hate’m, think they’re poorly designed? And would someone please tell me why these machines don’t use the hot-babe voice that came equipped with the computer on the Star Ship Enterprise (yes, I know, shopper demographics .. )?


  1. Poorly designed? Absolutely. It’s crazy…but it’s always seemed to me that folks who do UI design for kiosks, ATM’s and now these self-service checkouts were born and grew up in an alternate universe…as they’re plagued with UI issues that most PC apps seem to get over.

    But do I use them? Absolutely. Not sure what the retail experience is like in other places, here in W. MI stores like to install 15 checkouts then only have 2 open at any one time Then they staff those two with slow workers, or keep the turnover so high that it’s always someone new. Even if I have to fight a couple issues with the self-scanners I can usually be out of the store in a fraction of the time it takes to wait for help. Cutting that wait time is the “discount” for me.

    But I’m always glad to be a geek…and feel bad for less technically savvy folks who try to use the systems.

  2. arghhhhh!

    You talk about usability and in reading the very same post (with firefox) I find the following:-
    1. Linking into the post from a rss feed comes back with redirection limit exceeded
    2. the permalink errors with “The requested URL /vi#ceaseanddesistwithyourtrackbackspam=now was not found on this server.

    Additionally, a 404 Not Found error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request.
    Apache/1.3.33 Server at http://www.healyourchurchwebsite.com Port 80″
    3. Your email javascript link just comes back with “mailto:” in the TO field of email.

    Oddly enough, the links work in ie, but the email part still fails (oh and you have a broken image next to the capture)

  3. Andy, thanks for reminding the new readers here that we have an entire section dedicated to the speck in my eye. Then again, HYCW is not an ecommerce site, not a church website, just a personal techblog hobby sorta thingie.

    That SAID I’m more than happy to meet your needs but you’re going to have to give me a bit more information. I use FireFox to maintain this site, so hearing your redirect problem concerns me.

    You say you linked in from the RSS – okay – does that mean you came in via an aggregator? If so, let me know and I’ll fix my .htaccess which has been juiced to deal with a recent spate of trackback spams (in which case you got a 403, not a 404). Sounds like either your client or user agent is getting caught in the mix. I’d be glad to fix it for you if you’d convey that to me.

    Likewise with your email problems. Need to know what client is only rendering mailto: … again, sounds like my email obfuscation may be a bit too brutal for your app. Give me some gory details and I’ll be glad to serve you.

    I’ve tested both with a number of systems, but as browsers and aggregators change, I’m sure some slip through the cracks as we also have to fend off a rather nasty and daily onslaught of spam and DDoS attacks.

    Speaking of service … the URL hyperlink you entered … doesn’t exist. Looks like you typed in ‘http://absoblogginlutley.net’ accidentally. I fixed that.

    As for the broken image, yeah, know that … got a DDoS through the trackback the other day and need to remedy that. Wanna volunteer?


    Andy, did some research on your behalf, I made modifications to incoming Mozilla clients (though our are essentially identical) … at the risk of some FormMail attacks.

    However, as I suspected the issue may be more with how your personal aggregator (http://minutillo.com/steve/feedonfeeds/) is incoming to my system. I’ve gone ahead and modified my .htaccess to read:
    RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^http://([^/]+)absoblogginlutely\.net.*$ [NC]

    If this still doesn’t work, and if you’d like, we can set up a time, talk via Skype and I’ll fix my .htaccess so it allows – – [07/Feb/2005:13:26:50 -0500] “GET /archives/001429.php HTTP/1.1” 403 – “http://www.absoblogginlutely.net/fof/view.php” “Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; en-US; rv:1.7.5) Gecko/20041107 Firefox/1.0 (ax)”

    I’ve also got FOF installed on a PC w/Sokkit … I’ll see what happens there as well.

    As I said, unlike the ‘clerk’ from last night, I’ll do what it takes to make your browsing experience better. Let me know if this rows your boat or not?

  4. spot on and what service! Sorry I should have put a smiley or two on my original post as I hadn’t meant to be rude or grumpy although it might have looked like that.
    I’m waiting for my headphones and microphone to arrive so I can use skype – at the moment its not practical for me to use it just yet.
    Out of interest, what is sokkit? (never mind i googled it) I use foxserv at the moment for the same purpose but it really needs replacing with an uptodate install – i’ll probably try xampp

    The email client that I use is theBat and now that I’m using another pc I can confirm it works ok in outlook.

    You would have thought that I could type my own url in though wouldn’t you :sheepish grin:

  5. Personally, I prefer computerized check out. I can make the bags weigh less than the stress test limit of the plastic (or HORRORS even double-bag!) And I can even get the correct change…

    I worked as a checker in college. It only beat working at Mickie D’s because we were unionized and didn’t have to wear silly paper hats.

    However, your point is well taken. Consumers/users should come first, including issues like organization or readability.


  6. Here in the Dallas area, our Albertsons stores let you scan as you go– you swipe your loyalty card at a kiosk by the door, grab a handheld scanner, put a few shopping bags in your cart and go on your way. At the checkout, you turn in your scanner, swipe your card again and just have to pay. The system they use is far easier and more intuitive than U-Scan’s, which our local Kroger stores have.

    Like Boyink said above, the time saving is the discount for me. It’s sort of like the wedding registry at Target all over again… but with groceries instead of bed sheets.

  7. Excellent point, but how many paragraphs did you make your user read before you asked “So what has this got to do with Church websites?”

    Physician, heal thyself! šŸ˜‰

    Editor’s Note – well, I didn’t have an apple (e.g. the actual screen shots) handy, so I had to use oranges to describe what happened – though nothing virtual could replicate the near assault of clerk #2.

  8. comment deleted due to overuse of obscenities please feel free to post a family friendly version

    In the interim, here is the gist of his message:
    I’m stupid, I can’t follow instructions
    I have an attitude problem
    My attitude and stupidity caused the clerk to act in the manner he did
    The World would be a better place w/out mean dean

    There, now was that so hard Steve?

  9. comment deleted due to overuse of obscenities – and was a duplicate (please, only press the save button once)

  10. comment deleted due to overuse of obscenities – and was a duplicate (yes, I know MT is slow but still, only press the save button once)

  11. comment deleted due to overuse of obscenities – and was a duplicate (third dupe, fourth obscene entry)

  12. This comment is for “meandean”. please read very carefully “meandean’s” point # 1 as to why u-scan is stupid.–“Point #1, don’t treat your users like idiots. They’re usually better trained, better educated and have more of a clue than you think – moreover they put the money in your paycheck … or collection plate.” this comment is so incredibly ignorant and stupid, i don’t even know where to start. u-scan is a computer, which only knows right and wrong. so lets see, if somebody like “meandean” whom which has a very large stick up their ***, and thinks that they are better than everyone in the store, walks up to the u-scan station, and can’t follow very simple instructions that the computer gives, than you deserve more than just being treated like an idiot. keep in mind that “meandean” claims to be an incredibly intelligent, highly educated systems analyst that makes more money than everyone in the grocery business. but yet, he lacks something that i had thought most kids learn in elementary school, to follow instructions. for the millions of people that sucessfully use u-scan by following instructions, there will always be a bad apple, that lost his way somewhere between walking for the first time at 2 and enginerring school. what a genius!! i have personally used u-scan in one of the va beach harris teeters, and must say it was very easy and it sure beats standing in any line. also, if there is anything i know about harris teeter in particular, they are know for excellent customer service. i would go in that store over a food lion any day. so if the asociate did give you a “smarmy” attitude, it is probably because it was taking you twenty minutes to complete a 2 minute transaction; you know thoughs difficult instruction things. i will actually give “meandean” the benefit of the doubt, although this whole post he started is based of u-scan usability.
    to be honest i don’t think that “meandean” is simply attacking u-scan. i think that his stupidity landed him a bad experince at a grocery store, which is why he belives that he is so much better than everybody else. this is very ignorant!! employees of grocery stores and most retail stores for that matter, may not love their jobs, and its because of people like “meandean”. they love thier jobs because of the good, polite customers whom respect the service they are giving. they should be respected more than any systems analyst with a stick up thier ***. they work every weekend, every holiday except christmas day, some store 24 hours a day, with little to know consistency in thier schedules. now sure there are exceptions when companies are desperate for help and hire anyone off the streets that doesn’t have a care in the world, and just wants a paycheck. but for the most part, people that work in retail are really good people that just want to go one day on the job without wanting to quit because of some jerk like “meandean”. “meandean” may think that he is better than all these people because he makes more money, or has a diploma that says he is supposed to be intelligent, but he’s dead wrong. my opion is that he is very, very ignorant and a terrible person.
    i think that “meandean” is a lost cause, but for the rest of the people at home reading this post, next time you go into a retail store, please try and respect the employees, because they are there for you!!

    steve W.
    (former retail worker)

    p.s.—-sorry “meandean” for the obscenitites and the multiple sends, kept getting broken or busy server pages, for that i apologize, and i due respect that you are open to contrary opions.

    Mean Dean/Editor’s Comment – contrary opinion noted. Steve, for your sake please note three things:Please do not walk up to me and snatch an item out of my hand without first establishing/initiating the interaction with something like ‘hi, can I help you with that?’ … Walking away all surly doesn’t help either.Please do not put your hands on my daughter – ever.Please learn a bit more about how each store can ‘brand’ the U-Scan interface interaction – which H.T. does w/out consideration to industry standard usability practices and consideration for eye movement, color interpretation and phraseology … keeping the scanning equipment clean doesn’t hurt either.

    Mental note to self – ahhh, so that’s what they think about the rest of us? Hmmm.

  13. I can’t believe anyone has enough time to write that much about their horrible experience at the check-out line. Yet another example of a whiny suburbanite with too much time on their hands. I’m in high school and work for the Teeter part-time. The automated check-out feature at the stores is one of the easiest to use anywhere (and I’ve been to grocery stores on four continents) and it takes someone with a severe learning disability/mental retardation to fail to operate one correctly.
    To be quite frank, I’m suprised you were able to figure out the basic workings of your computer in order to post this string of inannities you call a website.

  14. Andrew, I would like to thank you for yet another example of how the rest of us are perceived by those working in the grocery services industry – and for pointing out the efficacy of hiring high school aged students in instances where customer interface is required. I’ll make note of that next time I decide where to spend my earnings.

    As for your opinions about the usability of the Harris Teeter check-out screens, instead of just throwing-up what you feel, we would appreciate some facts regarding the use of color, the layout of the buttons, the rendering of images and other usability factors. May I suggest starting from the top with Jakob Nielsen?

    Quite frankly Iā€™m surprised it only took you three strokes of the submit button to post your message three times … typos and all. Fear not though, as an example of courteous customer service this whiney suburbanite retard has deleted your first two reposts for your convenience. Please let me know how else this inane webservant can serve you.