Interaction Technology in Public – Whole Foods

In ITP, Physical Computing

For our Week 3 assignment, we needed to identify and analyze an interactive piece of technology used in public. I chose the check out system at Whole Foods.

Whole Foods devised an automated checkout system to organize customers queuing up to pay. They, like many big stores with high traffic, rely on these systems to get people out the door as quickly as possible.

In their system, there are two rows on the right meant for express checkouts, which are 10 items or less, and two rows on the left meant for larger purchases. The rows are color coded either yellow or blue and there are LCD screens at the front of the lines that display numbers as cashiers become available. As the numbers are displayed, there is an announcement over the PA that calls out the number.

wholefood interaction

I visited the store during off hours and at peak hours on a sunday night before dinner time. I found the difference in user reactions to be very interesting. During the off hours when things were calm, the system seem to work well and the customers were not overwhelmed with the various cues and indicators that needed to be observed in order to understand the system. There was enough visibility to see to the LCD screens at the front of the line and customers were able to filter out the announcements that were relevant to their line and not the others. Lastly, people displayed patience throughout the process which took a total of roughly 8 minutes from start to completion.

However, when I came back to the store on Sunday, there were about 4 times the amount of people and the different circumstances yielded different results.

  • Customers were no longer able to see the front of the line and could not clearly determine what line to go in as the signage for express/not express was too far ahead.
    • Hearing the audio announcements without the visual screen reference created confusion as to how the line worked.
  • The time of night at 6pm on a sunday, where people were rushing to get home, created stress and anxiety due to their urgency.
  • The larger amount of people meant longer wait times between customers. Since the system had no feedback (i.e no communication) between the number announcements, customers had little understanding as to why it was taking so long.
  • The added frenzy made filtering out announcements for your particular line more difficult and added an extra layer of complication to the whole experience.
  • Took roughly 24 minutes from start to completion.

wholefood interaction

The varying outcomes makes me think of Norman’s take on the importance of evaluating the scenario in which the user interacts with your system or device. He explains that people are more tolerant of design decisions that inhibit functionality for tasks that have no urgency or stress associated to them. When it involves something where people need to make quick decisions and there is urgency, there needs to be a more functional approach. The conceptual model needs to be distilled down and provide the users with unmistakable queues for action. I’m not saying that standing in line is a dire situation, where people need to make quick decisions or their life will be in danger. However, I do believe that the urgency and stress related to the check out experience when people are in a rush explains the very different experience on the same checkout system. While the Whole Foods Check out system is pretty functional when there are smaller amounts of people, it does not adapt well as more pressure is applied. This was displayed by the body language of people in line during the peak hours—looking around constantly signaling a degree of confusion, sighing signaling frustration and a tangible tension around the whole experience.

Given the varying scenarios that Whole Foods faces with their customers’ expectations, it would make sense to design a system for the most demanding of those scenarios (i.e. when customers are in a rush during peak hours). It’s important to note that the speed of the check out process relies more on the efficacy of the cashiers, however, they could create a system with improved feedback to appease customers during the added wait times. In the current system, it’s only when you approach the LCD screen that you could make sense of how the lines are moving and what line the audio announcements are for. Therefore, my following suggestion is to create a way to communicate line progress to customers at all stages of the line.

I think an inexpensive solution would be to add LED stripes along the line dividers that flash the color of your line when a number from your line is called. That way people at all stages of the line can easily see progress and make sense of the PA announcements. While this is a dead simple addition, it will immediately allow people to wrap their heads around how much longer they’ll be waiting and focus their attention only on announcements that relate to them. I believe that this make the experience less stressful, even at the busiest times.


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