pcomp: whole foods checkout line

prompt: Pick a piece of interactive technology in public, used by multiple people. Write down your assumptions as to how it’s used, and describe the context in which it’s being used. Watch people use it, preferably without them knowing they’re being observed. Take notes on how they use it, what they do differently, what appear to be the difficulties, what appear to be the easiest parts. Record what takes the longest, what takes the least amount of time, and how long the whole transaction takes. Consider how the readings from Norman and Crawford reflect on what you see.

i went to union square whole foods on the way to the g line around 6:30pm. i got into an “11 items or fewer” checkout line at 6:50 and was at a register by 7:00. there are four or five lanes in this checkout section, and the section was completely packed when i arrived at the back of the far left lane.

the checkout line is managed by a brilliant system of screens, numbers, and colors. each lane aligns with a screen that has its own background color, so the far left lane aligns with a red rectangle on the screen, the next lane in aligns with a blue rectangle that’s just in from the red rectangle, etc.

checkout line system

beyond these screens, there is a corresponding system of cashiers with lit numbers above their stations. when a cashier is available, they push a button (i think, but have not confirmed), the lit number above their station flashes, and the number of their station appears in a colored box that aligns with a checkout lane. in this illustration, cashier 3 is available. the person waiting in the lane aligned with the blue rectangle goes to cashier 3, assisted by the blinking light above that cashier station. for the people waiting in line, the lanes are called from left to right—so after the blue lane goes, the next number appears in the green rectangle, the next appears in the yellow rectangle, etc.

i calculated that it took a little over a minute for the numbers to cycle through. five people every minute means that in the ten minutes i waited in line, whole foods checked out about 50 people. mileage may vary for non-express lanes, but this is still way impressive.

i admit that i have not always loved the union square whole foods checkout system as much as i do now. the first time i went, i didn’t see the overhead screens and didn’t know when to go to the cashier or which cashier to go to. the numbers cycled through several times before i caught on.

i’ve easily spent 10 minutes waiting in line at home depot behind 5 people, and self checkout lines there take longer. i think this is a combination of bulkier merchandise that’s more complicated to ring up, fewer cashiers, and the fact that self checkout systems are universally terrible.

side note: cool nerdy article!

A Long Line for a Shorter Wait at the Supermarket – New York Times

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