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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

UI disasters in the real world

The demons of user interface change have struck again. This time, I'm not talking about Gmail. This one is in the real world.

Certain Safeway grocery stores have been remodeled to add a cafe with seating inside. It functions as an offshoot of the deli and there are people working behind the counter who will build sandwiches or whatever else you desire.

One interesting part about this system is that they have a pair of touchscreen terminals which are a bit like self-checkout lanes, only these are for building sandwiches. You can step up, select "for here" or "to go", then start plugging in your specifications. You get to pick whatever bread, meats, cheeses, condiments, and other side items (chips, drinks) you want.

You can also choose "large" or "small", and plug in your name so they know who to call when it's ready. Finally, there is a small credit card terminal attached so you can even pay right there if you want.

Well, that's how it used to work, at least. As of a couple of days ago, the situation is completely different. Now, when you enter the system, there is no longer a choice to "build your own". Instead, there are just three predefined sandwich options when you go into the new "cold sandwich" area. None of them are particularly appetizing to me.

Now, while it is possible to go through and edit these things before you submit them, it's a complete disaster. None of them start with any of the items I want, so I'd just have to go through and manually delete things and then add back the parts I want. I'm not sure what happens if you delete everything, and so it's a balancing act of first swapping the bread, then the cheese, and so on.

I got a few taps into this and gave up. Figuring I did something wrong, I cancelled out of the whole thing and went back to the top. Trying to go back in gave me the same results, so I knew it wasn't anything I had done. Finally, I just asked one of the people behind the counter if "the system" had changed. She said it had.

I was about ready to bail out right then and there, but she was willing to take my order verbally and build it for me. I relented and proceeded to convey what I wanted as best I could. At first, I didn't remember the right kind of bread, since the default had always been good and I never thought about what it was. It turns out the bread I like is what they call "baguette". Okay. It doesn't look like what I would call a baguette, but whatever.

Anyway, a few minutes later, I had my sandwich. Then I had to go through a checkout line to pay for it, because the people working on sandwiches don't touch money. I completely understand why this is the case, but it's silly considering how things used to work.

So let's review. Previously, you had a pair of computer terminals which would organically form a pair of lines during busy times. They were set back a few feet from the actual counter. You could plug in precisely what you wanted and would nearly always receive it. They were pretty good about following your "spec". You could also pay right there with a credit card.

Then, all you had to do was just hang out in the vicinity until they called your name, then walk up to the relatively clear counter area, grab it, thank them, and leave the store.

Now, you have people playing with the machines who get frustrated. They give up and then approach the people at the counter. The order in which they manage to snag someone's attention is totally random. That person then has to fulfill their order entirely verbally and on the spot and cannot refer back to a spec slip.

The natural flow of queuing to enter an order is gone. The FIFO aspect of having them build sandwiches as they come out of their printers is gone. Being able to pay right there in the deli is gone. Finally, you can't just browse the deli and bakery area with your idle time. Instead, you have to jostle to get up there and be noticed, bark your order, then wait until they build it on the spot. Before, you could key in an order and peruse the local goods until your order was completed.

I had a chat with the folks at customer service. Naturally, the people at the local store level had nothing to do with it, and the clerk at the service desk hadn't even heard about it. I completely expected and understood that answer. It wouldn't be the first time that someone pushed out a change to the flow of things who probably doesn't see things "on the ground".

Amusingly, I was given a little paper comment card to report my displeasure to "corporate". It's a standard "how are we doing" form with spots for your contact details and random comments with pre-paid postage. It points at a URL for their privacy policy but doesn't make any offer of sending feedback online.

I guess making you fill out your complaints on dead trees limits the number of wingnuts who would spam them through a web site, but it still feels backwards to me. Also, having to escalate things personally instead of being able to report stuff to the people right there rubs me the wrong way.

I see why the customer service desk person asked me to do it (because I've been there myself) but I still don't have to like it.

This particular lunch venue is no longer on my personal list.


October 25, 2012: This post has an update.