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.

2012.22 | Tablets

While the iPad is certainly the standard for tablets, two new releases over the past couple of weeks may lift the bar for the essentially non-existent competition for everyone but the nerdiest of users.

Microsoft Surface – Leveraging the upcoming release of Windows 8 with its interface that works with desktop and tablets, Microsoft made a relatively big splash with its “Jobs-like” reveal of the soon to be released Microsoft tablet.  While some will deride Microsoft Surface as the Zune of tablets, there is some potential behind Surface. While much of the Surface tablet is speculative at present (price, release, user experience) Microsoft does have some things going for it.

Magnetic Cover with Keyboard –  iPads are not optimal for data entry and entry intensive uses.  While there are a number of bluetooth keyboard options, most of them mar the sleek look and profile of the iPad. If the keyboard included with the Surface tablet works well, it overcomes a missing element on the iPad without sacrificing the look and simplicity of the unit.

Windows 8 –  While iOS receives well deserved attention for its simplicity and ease of use, the OS has not changed a great deal in years.  Those who haven’t seen the look and feel of Windows 8 or seen a recent Windows Phone OS will be impressed.  In my opinion, the dynamic, configurable tile based interface leapfrogs the iOS interface in both ease of use and looks.  Another small item that might be useful in a tablet from a retail perspective is NFC capability.  Windows Phone 8 has NFC enabled and that may provide a way for retailers to get past dongle after dongle issue for payments in Windows 8 if that functionality can be ported to Surface.  It would certainly help here in Canada where EMV readers for tablets are hard to find thus far.

Display Size – It isn’t a massive difference, but the Surface unit has a 10.6 screen with a 16:9 ratio.  It’s slightly bigger than the iPad which is helpful for using the iPad as a shared screen.  Most video is wide format now, so it could display more full screen for demos in a retail environment.

Productivity Applications – While Apple came at tablets from the mobile side, Microsoft comes it from a desktop perspective.  Microsoft Office apps are much more feature laden and better for most business than Pages, Numbers and Keynote.  Much as Apple has some incredible templates and wonderful toys (using iPhone as remote for Keynote), they lack the depth of features that Office has.  If Microsoft ports Office to Surface with full functionality, they will be much more useful in a business environment and have a broader following in business.  Whether this is useful in a retail environment will depend on the application.

Surface may not have the cache of iPad.   Surface may not be the tablet the customers at Starbucks are using, but it may well represent the evolution of the computer at work. From a retail perspective it provides another potential low cost option with a slightly larger beautiful screen. The ability to add data entry without sacrificing usability and portability for client based solutions will help with some applications as well.  Add the ubiquity of Windows as a platform in retail in North America, and Surface could find a foothold in retail applications.  There are lots of details to shake out, but don’t discount it without investigation.

Google Nexus – Google also announced a new tablet recently.  One of many interesting releases from Google this week, the new tablet is made by Asus.  Much different from the iPad and Surface, the new Nexus tablet is a much smaller and low cost unit.

Priced at $199, the unit seems a more fitting competitor to the Kindle Fire.  Like the Fire, it is more of a paper back sized device purpose built to consume media – read books and magazines, watch video, play simple games and browse the Internet.  Like the Kindle Fire, the Nexus is closely tied to a content ecosystem in Google Play.  Nexus leverages the latest version of Android for Tablets  – Jelly Bean.

While not as feature laden as the iPad and Surface, tablets like this will continue to drive expectations of low cost devices that can be harnessed for many uses.  This relatively sophisticated technology is being driven closer and closer to a $0 item used as a loss leader to drive consumption of media, lowering the desire for consumers to pay without clear benefits.

The impact of this device on retailers is more on increased competition for the likes of Amazon, Kobo, and Kindle for electronic media.  It would be surprising to see these devices used in a retail environment as a selling or transactional tool, but that could all change tomorrow.

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