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Self-service only half right

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Many supermarket have self-service checkouts these day. Jeff Atwood has an interesting perspective:

What fascinates me about self-service checkout devices is that the store is making you do work they would normally pay their employees to do. Think about this for a minute. You’re playing the role of the paying customer and the cashier employee.

He also makes a point that I am the most motivated person to complete the process as fast as possible, so it is a win-win to ‘outsource’ that function to me. All well and good. It is when we come to the user-interface, user-friendliness of the self-service checkout machines things start looking a bit hairy.

And this, dear reader, touches on the essence of my distinction between user-centric and user-driven:

There are certain rituals to using the self-service checkout machines. And we know that. We programmers fundamentally grok the hoops that the self-service checkout machines make customers jump through. They are, after all, devices designed by our fellow programmers. Every item has to be scanned, then carefully and individually placed in the bagging area which doubles as a scale to verify the item was moved there. One at time. In strict sequence. Repeated exactly the same every time. We live this system every day; it’s completely natural for a programmer. But it isn’t natural for average people. I’ve seen plenty of customers in front of me struggle with self-service checkout machines, puzzled by the workings of this mysterious device that seems so painfully obvious to a programmer. I get frustrated to the point that I almost want to rush over and help them myself. Which would defeat the purpose of a.. self-service device.

So often self-service may be performed by myself but it sure as hell ain’t a service.

For completeness, Jeff’s post is not actually about supermarkets, his final point is yet more interesting. It is about open source and I’d argue that it applies to any voluntary collaborative effort.

Indeed, once you destroy the twin intrinsic motivators of self-determination and autonomy on an open source project, I’d argue you’re no better off than you were with traditional closed source software. You’ve created a self-service checkout machine so painful to use, so awkward to operate, that it gives the self-service concept a bad name.

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One Response to “Self-service only half right”


  1. Alice Bachini-Smith
    on Jan 28th, 2009
    @ 17:22 pm

    I hate those things. They always get stuck on anything discounted, too light to register weight or just because. The queues are only shorter there because everyone avoids them! :)

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