Observe, Question, Design
Pat Luke Mooney
I visited a local Stop & Shop self-checkout line with a critical eye, paying atten-
tion to the flow of the automated system for perhaps the very first time. I came
to conclude that self-checkout has a strange sort of accordion-time effect, the
promise of a quick and easy transaction often interrupted by interminable
delays . As shoppers at any of the six terminals would encounter errors, the
pace would slow and a backlog would build up. Yet at the same time multiple
shoppers could finish their purchases simultaneously, freeing up other stations.
When I began to purchase an item myself, the first step was simply waiting to
approach a terminal. A line had appeared, and overall this was an average,
boring experience. Eventually I was able to chose a checkout station, and my
emotional state was fairly neutral throughout; I had the straightforward ob-
jective of selecting a language, rewards card, and scanning my items.
However this turned to anxiety as I made an error when selecting the right
produce option, not wanting to inconvenience other customers.
As far as interfaces go, I feel the system was fairly natural (in the sense that it
uses the assumed logic of a supermarket effectively). Scanning my items from
left-to-right and placing them in bags seemed perfectly normal, and when I en-
countered an error I pressed the button for assistance. The attendant that ap-
peared was a far more effective tutorial (through conversation) than any help
menu. I paid by swiping a credit card, another collective social interface.
I would improve the system by tinkering with the weight-sensing algorithm,
which occasionally hits a snag and slows the process down. A camera that
could visually identify produce could have resolved my issue fumbling with
the menu. Lastly, the “15 Items Or Less” line should live up to its namesake!
I chose to record my daily experience taking the PATH train into Manhattan. On
the whole, I came to believe that mass transit is very well designed by modern
standards. There is little wasted space and the platforms are fairly orderly and
well arranged. Note that the PATH is slightly different from the NYC subway
system, and I feel has a little room for improvement in some key areas.
I noticed a number of people struggling with bags, boxes, and various forms
of luggage when taking the station escalators, invariably blocking the path
for others. I thought one solution could be to install a second, smaller moving
track to one side of the escalator, where the handrail is. Slots in this track
could be used to place bags when descending, freeing up space on the escala-
tor while keeping luggage within arm’s reach. User feedback could help
design the specifications of the track, such as ergonomics and size of bags.
I know native New Yorkers have a certain affinity for reading train line maps,
but for me they are utterly indecipherable. I saw several people staring at the
wall map in vain, before giving up and finding an attendant or someone else
to ask. One solution for the smartphone-enabled crowd could be to post a
QR-code url on the wall with a “You Are Here” title. Surveying users to find
points of confusion could help build a context-sensitive web map.
Finally, when on the track itself, I observed some others lingering confusedly
after their train had been delayed. The system would periodically play auto-
mated alerts over the loudspeakers, but these were often garbled or hard to
understand when in a crowd. There are monitors stationed by the track to
show advertisements, and I think these could be easily repurposed to periodi-
cally show delays and schedules, maybe color-coded for different user groups.
What if I began to select meals purely on a nutritional basis, not bothering with how
things taste? How would that change my quality of life in the short term / long term?
How could online shopping better approach a physical browsing metaphor, as seen in
Despite all their rich history, most people approach museums by simply browsing from
exhibit to exhibit. How could an interactive installation make this more engaging?
What if my cat was old or disabled (instead of a rambunctious little bastard)? How
does that change human relationships with pets, as caretakers?
What if I didn’t have long walks in my daily commute? How would that change the
rhythm of my life?