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How to improve the TPL’s new “Express” RFID checkouts

May 15th, 2010

So I was visiting the Toronto Public Library’s North York Central Library (NY CL) branch the other day and was shocked at the lobby redesign. It seemed so modern, there was plenty of light and open space. My first thought was that it looked like an Indigo or Chapters, without the cash registers!

Pretty soon, I began to notice something — a distinct lack of signs in the newly renovated areas, from the elevators to the front entrance:

The newly renovated front entrance of NYCL, no signs

Don’t believe me? Here’s the opposite angle — the other side of the lobby:

View of the self-checkouts and exit

If I didn’t tell you outright, would you really think those computers up there in the last photo were for self-checkout? Me, I would think they’re catalogues, just like at Indigo/Chapters, right? (Wrong.) Let’s look closer, can we tell now?

Closer view of Express Checkouts at TPL

Well, we’ve an obvious sign now, and if you look over at the service counter on the far right (not pictured), you can see similar capital-letters-on-blue signs. Personally I find these signs ugly, hard to read, and a touch condescending, but maybe that’s just me.

We’ve a self-checkout, but how does it work? Can you tell from this photo alone? No? Well, here’s a shot from another angle. I’ve added my interpretation of how it *should* work, but we’ll see in a minute that it’s not that simple:

Now, to take those instructions and make them clearer, let me show off what I think the above photo SHOULD look like:

As you can see, there’s a much more obvious 1-2-3 progression inherent both in the signs and software. A colourful bullseye is printed on the RFID pad, and in the sign next to it, books are shown on the same bullseye to help associate its functionality. Similarly, the scanner has a little sign with a library card on it being “scanned” by a red laser-like line. Even the receipt machine is pointed out, to emphasize that the books are “checked out” only when the “Done” button is pressed and the receipt is printed. (I wish it would email instead, but that’s another problem entirely!)

This is however, in an ideal world, and the system doesn’t work this way. I tried to checkout a book, Tom Peters’ excellent “Little Big Things” (and these problems are definitely a bunch of little-big-things!) and here’s what I saw (with my notes in red):

So I tap English (and it works the third time, dang those are tiny buttons.)

Ooh, finally some instructions. But uh, why should I place items down before scanning my card? Isn’t it more logical to scan the card first, THEN checkout the items? Maybe it’s done all in one step/screen? (I wish!)

Uh oh! Seems I might have an error, look at that giant exclamation mark (!) but wait, I can still “Continue”? Why show this screen separately, then? Let me checkout! This isn’t feeling very “Express” right now…

Okay, now I’m getting lazy at cropping the photos. Here we see a list of items “on the pad” (which it says in a dozen words). Note it says “To check out more items, press Continue” — that’s actually a mistake, but it’s par for the course in this poorly designed software. When you push Continue, it will “check out” the shown items, not ask for more. But hmm, how can a book be in TRANSIT when it obviously isn’t? (And why do I care?)

So I blindly hit the blue Continue button (you knew the hard to read black-on-blue text is Continue, right? Unlike the black-on-black Cancel, that is. More on that in a sec.)

Feeling “Express” yet? We’ve checked out our one item. It says to remove “when due dates show” — which makes me wonder how often due dates might not appear … but oh look, another blue button! I must be done, so I click it and remove my “item”, expecting a receipt.

But … no receipt prints. Argh, this was supposed to be express! Where did I (a geek!) go wrong? Better yet, what screen do I see now?

Ooh, this looks familiar — we’re back to the fourth screen. And yes, the items on the pad now match the items on the screen. But it says to check out more items press Continue. I don’t want to do that. So what other option do I have? Cancel. But I don’t want to do that either, I want to keep my checked out book, not cancel it. Why can’t I just say DONE? At this point I’ve spent a good 3 minutes here, and I’m frustrated. I can’t even lose the book because I don’t know if I can walk out now, or if I might be responsible for the book if I leave it here and it becomes overdue later.

Luckily a librarian hovers near (wonder why, eh?) and notices my dilemma. She brings up another point, seeing this screen — what if the book hasn’t been securely deactivated? (Eep, never thought of that myself and it isn’t mentioned anywhere!) So I let her take the book behind the service counter’s door in the wall, and wait another minute for the all-clear.

What an “express” checkout that was.

Still, we’re on to something here. The idea of just scanning a card, stacking a bunch of books, then a bunch more, and grabbing a receipt, is too tempting to ignore. The only problem with the above experience was a lack of clear direction in both the software and physical kiosk setup.

As a reminder, let’s see my version of the kiosk again:

Notice that in my version of the checkout, the screen looks like a kiosk, with big “touchable” buttons, sensible defaults (English) and a sense of physical presence, with the arrow pointing at the barcode scanner. As some of the stations have the barcode scanner on the other side, the software might need to be configured to allow for different physical situations, just as left-click and right-click swap functionality when the mouse is on the other side of the keyboard.

You’ll also note I’ve hypothetically introduced a DONE button in my Step 3 instructions. That’s a direct result of my personal confusion over when I was actually “done” and could leave the checkout. I figure a dedicated button solves the “Do you have more books?” question, by assuming I do unless I say I’m “done”. After all, what are the dangers of scanning the same RFID tag twice? Nada.

Which leads to another point — why bother with a touch screen when you can use physical manipulations instead. Want to sign in with your library card? Just pass the card underneath the scanner, no need to hit Continue for that. Similarly, want to tell the system you’ve more books to checkout? Pile them on the RFID reader and it’s obvious.

Now, the way I see this kiosk UI working best is in a triple-pane configuration that’s based on the physical layout (roughly). The half of the screen closest to the RFID Reader displays the full book covers (or titles if covers missing) of books placed on the Reader, while the half closest to the barcode reader does the same for the books checked out by the account, along with their name and status. Action buttons, such as those to checkout books or say you’re DONE are placed somewhere in the middle, or perhaps not. Regardless, when you click Checkout, the books smoothly animate from one side of the screen to the other, to visibly show their status changing. They fade out on the Reader side, but still remain visible to show the books are still being read there.

But wait, what if you make a mistake? No need for a cancel button. Just hit DONE when you’re done (even if you haven’t done anything) and that will clear the screen for another patron. And if you’ve accidentally checked out some books, just drop them off in the drop box as you leave. (There should be a drop box right next to the checkout, because that’s where people expect it, but whatever works—)

So I wrote this post in response to a surprising lack of signs. Left, you can see a typical configuration of self-serve equipment, clearly labelled and designed for you to understand what you’re doing at a glance. Sadly, the same care and attention to detail hasn’t been applied to the new self-checkouts, causing delays and confusion. (Though indeed, once you use it a few times, you learn to jump through the hoops, and I even saw a 7 year old working the checkout system faster than his parents, so maybe I’m just too old…)

And I can do further mockups of the system in action. Certainly, if I know that what I’d post here could go in the next revision of the software, I would, but I worry that “skinning” the current interface won’t make up for the problems I outlined above, and a fundamental rejiggering of the RFID reading is in order.

I actually played with RFID reading in Max/MSP, with a classmate at York University and some RFID readers the Digital Media dept. has. What would be really nice is if the barcode scanners disappeared entirely, as did the kiosks, and instead the giant security readers did the checkouts based on an RFID reading of our library cards as we left with whatever books we wanted. If we weren’t allowed to leave, they would beep, as they do now, and nothing new is required from a security perspective. Plus it would make me feel better at having so darn many of those security scanners. I mean, really, it’s like an airport:

Just my two cents. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, or @-reply me on Twitter, I’m @4lou.


10 Comments, Yay! »
  • Rob M

    I've only encountered the automated system at Malvern. It sucks too.

  • http://blog.lsta.me/?p=214 Your Face

    Wow…someone actually took the time to write a review about a library checkout application. You expect so much for a library, don't you? I personally find the checkout system not as flawed as you perceive it to be. Perhaps its just the fact that you didn't understand how to use it and now you're blaming the system. Instead of just cropping images of what the program should look like, why don't you go design one yourself since your so amazing.

  • Louis

    Actually, I did. Redesign it, that is. http://lsta.me/m.html – a Flash mockup best viewed on a desktop-size screen.

  • Louis

    Might suck less soon, as through this post, I've been invited to meetings about redoing it. No idea what will come of it, though.

  • http://tplfans.wordpress.com/ Joe Clark

    So I guess I was right: TPL will listen to any suggestions about RFID as long as they don’t come from me.

  • http://openid.claimid.com/scruss scruss

    Yeah, it works fine, and gets through the line faster.

  • r12

    New system is coming soon to libraries in the coming month.

  • r12

    That's because you're an idiot. Nobody likes you. TPLRants

  • http://seenonflickr.wordpress.com/ seenonflickr

    Nice post! I find the new automated checkout system very frustrating, too!

  • http://joeclark.org/weblogs/ Joe Clark

    A lot of people “like” me. Even on Facebook!

    Meanwhile, where’s *your* usability analysis, Anonymous Coward?