23 December 2008

Self service at the Post Office

With timing that I'm sure was absolutely outside their control the refurbishment of our town centre post office has been completed and now includes a ticketing system and comfy seats for those waiting to be served (Argos-style, as Linda Wild has described it). When I took these pictures on one of the last posting days before Christmas there must have been 70 or so people waiting to be served - and not enough seats for all of them. Many, I'm sure, won't brave the system again, if they can avoid it. Waiting half an hour for a new electric kettle is one thing, but it's not so great when you were hoping to be out of the office for just a few minutes, to get a parcel into the post.

To alleviate the pain the Post Office have installed two self-service machines. The person on the left of the second picture attempted to use the machines first then, thwarted, joined the queue. (I have an almost identical sequence of pictures for the self-service machines at our local train station.) The person in cycling gear on the right was lucky and, like me, received help from a host, guiding customers through the machine interface. Even with the host's help I ended up without a receipt because the option wasn't prominent enough on the display for a first-time user to notice it. Possibly the interface designers were under pressure to limit the number of screens in a sequence. There are many self-service transactions where receipts are important and it would be kinder to customers to include their selection as part of the main sequence rather than as an option. Reducing the number of screens doesn't always add up to improved usability.

More generally, as Linda (of the Argos analogy) and I discussed the intimidating experience of self-service (particularly at supermarket checkouts), we wondered why retailers don't incentivise customers to persevere with it. (I'm not suggesting that the technology and user interface shouldn't be improved - they should - just that retailers might want to get more return on their investment.) Just a small discount or a few points on your payment card would tip the balance for many, I suspect.

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