2014.11 | using icons at pos

Retail-shop-iconFashion and specialty retailers with strong brands are increasingly global with stores in many countries, and employ associates with varied demographics and many languages and cultures.

At a recent meeting with a fashion retailer, the question of icons for use with POS User Interfaces arose.  POS is used in many languages, and they inquired as to the possibility of icons on function buttons instead of text.   Icons are certainly available and we have utilized them for implementation, but the question made me consider icons and how we use them.

Touch POS is relatively new to many fashion retailers and is FINALLY poised to become the norm and take over the realm of keyboards and function keys in tier 1 department and specialty stores.

To fully enable touch as an interface, the concept of using icons seems a reasonable path.  Minimizing translation of languages is ideal to simplify deployment across an enterprise and simplifies support, training and more.  We changed from text to images on labels on self-checkouts a number of years ago to indicate where shoppers should place notes, coins and receive receipts.  This change was in response to the increasing demand for self-checkout in international markets.  The move to symbols instead of text made the systems easier to use and simplified configuration of new systems as there was only one option for labelling instead of one for each language.

The main challenge with symbols and icons is whether they drive universal understanding in real life.

Consider the icons on your mobile device.  Mobile devices bring together an incredible range of functionality previously fulfilled by many different devices in the past, and those devices are represented on mobile devices as icons – phone, clock, camera, music, movies, television, settings and more.  The icons used to represent those functions are representative of those devices.  The images are relatively well understood by a majority of users who would use the devices.  While devices and software vary, the icons are relatively common.   The phone functions are represented by a phone handset, clock by a rotary analog clock, camera by a DSR camera, music by a music notes, movies by film reels or a clapperboard, television by an old CRT television and settings by gears.

126652-1280For those of us who have lived in both the pre-internet and internet eras, these are easily recognizable, but technology is changing that.  Today’s children don’t use a rotary phone with old style phone handset, look at analog clocks or at old CRT televisions.  They know the icons because they have learned from their parents what those icons represent.  Even newer icons fall victim to this ongoing change.  The original iPhone had an iPod icon instead of music.  That only existed for a few years, and it won’t be long until children ask what that image even is, as iPods with a clickwheel fall into history.

Technology is rapidly driving all of the traditional devices with their recognizable shapes to all be a rectangular slab of glass – not terribly useful for an illustrative icon.

While this may sound like hyperbole, consider that the children that grew up without these old school devices are moving into retail.  Children born near the turn of the century are now eligible to enter the retail workforce, and it is important to consider their understanding as well as that of pre and post internet users.  POS providers and retailers need to ensure whatever icons are put in front of their users will drive understanding and ease of use.

POS also has a much different range of functions than a standard mobile device.  Users of a POS device have to be able to support administrative functions, item lookup, gift receipts and returns, suspend/resume transactions, tendering, discounts, clocking in and out, locking and unlocking the POS and much more.

Many of these items are accommodated with old fashioned icons as has been done with mobile phones.  Some obvious examples include:

  • administrative functions = gears
  • item lookup = magnifying glass
  • returns / gift receipts = a giftbox (box with a bow on top)
  • discounts = price tag with $ / % on it
  • suspend / resume = a yield sign or open hand
  • tendering = cash, coins or a credit card
  • clocking in/out = a timeclock or clock
  • locking / unlocking = padlock

Some of these icons are more self evident than others.  For those of us that use a system every day, the icons make complete sense.  For new users they can be baffling – particularly if they are not familiar with the functionality in question – suspend / resume can be challenging for example, as an open hand can mean many things, and suspending a transaction is probably not something that inexperienced staff new to the workforce will know without some training.

Now consider the international aspect of the icons above.  My experience with Canada and the US is that these icons will be recognizable, but what about Asia?  What about South America?  Cultural differences are likely to be discovered with international implementations.   Even if globalization drives consistent symbology, using images of notes, coins and pricetags will need to vary by region – $, £, ¥, € should all be used to correctly represent tendering.  Even credit cards are changing – an image of a magstripe already seems old fashioned in many countries as an icon.

From a usability perspective, the use of both icons and text on function buttons makes the most practical sense for POS.  It enables new users by providing context to new icons. It enables experienced users by giving them a shorthand to recognize the functions they want at a glance.  Where it is not possible due to screen real estate to show both text and icons, the ideal option is to enable the user to select which they would like to use via a simple toggle.  Having a text tip pop up if users leave their finger on an icon is another useful option.

While removing text translation from all buttons would be a benefit, usability and understanding outstrip that benefit if the collective benefit of all the users in a tier one retailer chain are combined.  In fact, adding the text to the buttons can be an enabler – driving consistent terminology at the retailer for various functions to ensure simple consistent associate and shopper communication.

With respect to the icons selected, the quantity of icons being generated has never been greater – witness the expansion of icons in the emoji world – there is no right answer.  While ISO has graphical symbol standards for many things, retail POS does not appear to be covered in their standards.   NRF’s ARTS may be a good place for all providers and retailers to focus on standard icons that would benefit the retail industry in general.  If not, expect the collective power of the Internet to drive new and interesting icons for standard items and features that everyone can understand.  The icons may change, but touch is here to stay.

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2010.13 | Barcode of the Future?

There was a lot of press over the last week or so around RFID tags that can be printed onto packaging  using Carbon Nanotubes in the ink.  This is an interesting development in the world of scanning in retail, given our ongoing obsession with attaining the nirvana of checkout – the non-checkout – as depicted in the famous IBM “You forgot your receipt” commercial from the late 90s.

A few thoughts to consider on using item level RFID tags at point of sale:

Labelling Complexities – Considering the thousands of items for sale in today’s retail stores, expect a migration to RFID to take some time to complete.  For example, while marketers may think RFID means the end of unsightly barcodes, it will be necessary to have some sort of visual code or number on any item in order to allow for pricing in the event of a failed code or reader.  Not having a visual code to type in would cause bottlenecks at point of sale and customer frustration.   Another concern is how RFID readers will recognize items vs cases of items.   Cases of Coke generally have individually barcoded cans as well as a barcode on the case.  Barcodes are visual and the scanner can be directed at the code to ensure it picks up the case code.  Should Coke not put RFID tags on cans in cases?  How do we make the reader read the RFID tag on the case?  These are just two examples of many details that will require consideration.  This will take time and testing to complete.

Scanners – Current scanning technology won’t read RFID tags.  It will be necessary to change the scanning technology at the front end.  For customers with scanner/scales, there may be an upgrade path to avoid entire replacments and simplify a migration from barcodes to item level RFID.  The NCR 7878OFX  has space in the unit for a future RFID reader, allowing one scanner to read both barcodes and RFID tags.  In a grocery environment, a scale will still be needed, so using the current units as much as possible would be a big cost benefit.

Security  – Using RFID tags on every item would potentially eliminate the necessity of EAS tags.  An RFID reader at the door could validate whether an item has been purchased or not when it passes through the door.  It may be more effective in avoiding false positives (false alarms) at the store exit.  There is also the very reasonable concern of privacy advocates that those with readers could read what is in your bag – or even in your house depending on the tag.  There needs to be some sort of tag destruction protocol to avoid that concern.

Like any technology, there are some great upsides, but costs and difficulties must be overcome which will drive the feasibility of this technology out for some years.  I wouldn’t expect to walk through a gate and have everything scanned automagically either – for starters, metal carts mess with the reception, tags in the middle of cases of liquid don’t always read well, and most customers won’t want us weighing every customer to see how much their produce weighs.   Given these issues and the concern around privacy (remember RFID passport hacking?) I don’t believe this will catch on any time soon.  Simplicity and cost are key and this solution isn’t there yet, but I look forward to new developments that could make it happen.

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