Friday, February 29, 2008

"Leap Day" causes problems for United check-in kiosks

And here I thought date/time calculations were pretty much a solved problem in the computer programming world. Apparently that's not the case.... at least, not if you have crappy programmers. This according to Chicago Business News, via the AP:
Passengers using United Airlines' "Easy Check-In" found it anything but that on Leap Day when the automated system failed, resulting in longer lines at its U.S. airport counters.

The Chicago-based carrier blamed the service interruption on software issues related to the leap year.

Spokeswoman Megan McCarthy says customers couldn't get Easy Check-In kiosks to confirm they had been checked in or print out their boarding passes for several hours.

McCarthy says no flights were delayed because of the problem. The airline apologized to customers for any inconvenience.
I'm sure that apology made the thousands of passengers waiting in line (after having been spoiled by the always prompt and courteous service of self check-in devices these past few years) feel much better. Makes you wonder how we did without the things just a few years ago :)

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Friday, February 22, 2008

When to trade form for function

Ask any kiosk application designer to name his biggest challenges, and you'll see interface design high up on the list. It's not that it's technically difficult to build graphical applications, or that computers are too slow to show lots of visual bells and whistles. Instead, the true challenge lies with making an interface that is easiest enough for a novice to use, but powerful enough to get the job done, handle special cases, and deal with exceptions and errors gracefully.

Normally you don't hear too much about how an application performs after the fact, though these days we can use web analytics tools to figure out when people are exiting the process too soon, where they seem to get stuck, and which buttons they really like to press.

Sadly, the folks who deployed the self-service informational kiosks at Ballantyne Village in Charlotte, N.C. don't appear to have done this. In what might be the best kiosk user interface critiques I've seen on the web, user experience expert Lynn Marentette dissects an application and lets us come along for the ride thanks to the liberal use of a video camera and YouTube. Her ultimate conclusion:
The large interactive touch screen displays I found at Ballantyne Village didn't live up to potential, nor did they help me achieve my goals as a first-time visitor who happened to have some time and money for an after-work shopping session.

They displays were attractive, but they weren't very useful. They were difficult to use, and during the time I spent exploring the displays, I was the only person who interacted with the screens or noticed the other forms of digital signage in the area.

As I approached the first screen, I noticed that in order to activate the display, I had to chase a red ball around the screen. The migrating red ball attracted me to the screen, but it wasn't always functional. On the first display, as soon as I managed to touch the ball, the screen faded to red, and did not reactivate. I chased a ball on another screen, but it did not activate at all.

I was able activate another screen which allowed me to navigate and find more information. Unfortunately, the content wasn't well-organized or as interactive as I'd expected.

The display performed as if it wanted to be both a video infomercial AND an interactive website at the same time. Web-like navigation conventions, such as a back arrow and navigation bars did not always activate when touched. This might have been related to a screen calibration problem.

There were many on-screen items that were puzzling. There was a rotating map of a large view of the Ballantyne Village area that didn't seem to provide information when touched. There was another image of the main building, with small billboards displayed that looked like they were navigation tools, but did nothing when clicked. Some menu items activated when clicked, but the sub-menus that displayed did not link to anything. I never found out about the sales!
Just goes to show you (again) that what looks good on screen doesn't necessarily translate to a good user experience with your application.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Self-service kiosks 'ease airport experience'

That's according to Virgin Atlantic, who uses 220 check-in kiosks at 39 airports to handle check-ins for over 675,000 passengers per month. According to this article at Just The Flight:
The airline, which has introduced self-service check-in kiosks at all of its UK airports, has said that the options presented by the technology afford passengers a simpler airport experience.
"In the past [passengers] would have to go to the ticket desk and then onto a traditional desk to check in. Now they can do it all in one place, which obviously saves valuable time and gives the passenger a simple and seamless experience," said Janine Donovan, press officer for Virgin Atlantic.
According to the airline's website, as many as nine people can be checked in at once using the self-service kiosks, with a bag drop provided for passengers who have luggage to check in. (emphasis added)
Y'all already know I'm a big fan. But it's pretty cool to see a company with the style and panache of Virgin extolling the virtues of self-service as well.

Also getting in on the airport check-in kiosk lovefest is this article from USA Today about Alaska Airlines's kiosk network expansion. The company will ultimately utilize three clusters of 11 kiosks apiece and an additional 16 bag drop pods at Seattle-Tacoma airport. Along with the addition of kiosks, "the new lobby design has cut average check-in time by half, the airline says."

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Wal-Mart to install Coinstar's '4th Wall' program

Progressive Grocer tells us that Wal-Mart will be installing Coinstar Centers, integrated self-service units that combine a number of interesting services, as part of their 4th wall optimization plan. The article notes:
The retailer will install Coinstar Centers, including the vendor's Redbox DVD rental kiosks, chain-wide over the next 12 to 18 months.In addition, as part of its 4 th Wall optimization plan, Coinstar will be removing or relocating certain entertainment products in Wal-Mart stores.

Redbox is currently installed in over 800 Wal-Mart stores, and Coinstar Centers (the vendor's coin-counting machines) are installed in over 400 Wal-Mart stores in the United States.

Coinstar's 4th Wall solutions include self-service coin counting, electronic payment solutions, entertainment services, money transfer, and self-service DVD rental, in addition to 4th Wall optimization consulting.
We had heard that some kiosk vendors were being asked to take out their devices, and others were being asked to update them. Rather than ditching self-service entirely as some had speculated (and seemed completely counter-intuitive to me), this 4th wall thing makes a lot more sense. Now customers will learn that all of the self-service devices are located in a single place in every Wal-Mart, and can modify their shopping behavior accordingly.

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Friday, February 08, 2008

Cyphermint to provide in-store shipping tech for Walgreens

I don't know if the systems are going to be customer-facing (and self-service) or just used by store personnel, but one thing I do know is that in-store shipping is becoming the new replacement for in-store photo development. Office supply companies like OfficeMax have offered in-store shipping service for a while now (and of course, the bigges like the UPS Store and FedEx/Kinkos have been making it the focal point for even longer), but DHL is definitely ratcheting up their presence by putting shipping points in 6,500 Walgreens locations across the US. From this press release:
Cyphermint designed a Windows based software solution which is the operating system for the DHL Shipping Spots. At Walgreens and OfficeMax retail locations, The DHL Shipping Spots are staffed by fully trained associates to weigh, label and ship customer packages to US and international destinations.

The user-friendly interface within the DHL Shipping Spots feature intuitive screen prompts which help retail associates quickly prepare a customer shipment. After the associate selects the destination, weighs the package, attaches the label and collects payment, the package is secured and available for DHL pick up. Associates working with customers that already have a DHL account can also enter the customer account number and have the remaining information auto-filled for their convenience. Cyphermint utilized the strengths and experience gained from the transactional and financial application of 7-Eleven's Vcom project and the customer service usability of the recent AAA kiosk to implement the functionality that was essential for the DHL Shipping Spot.
From the "user-friendly interface" comment, I had assumed that this might evolve into a customer-facing application, but after a second reading it's clearly geared towards being staff-assisted. Still, shipping packages seems like one of those things where a self-service solution could probably address 95% of customer needs. If these Shipping Spots prove to be popular, I wouldn't be surprised to see a self-service enabled version 2.0 roll out in the future.

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