Vending Machines, Users, and My Cheez-It Problem

I have become very interested in vending machines. Vending machines have been used to sell candy, cigarettes, stamps, bicycle parts, socks, and live bait. People have even created library book vending machines, which is pretty cool.

Let’s get to the point though. The other day, I tried to get a bag of Cheez-It’s from the vending machine in the NLM canteen. The process was greatly impeded by a new digital interface, and I cannot stop thinking about the experience.

Let’s get some pictures here:

From the Minnesota Historical Society Flickr account:
From the Minnesota Historical Society Flickr account

This is obviously an older vending machine and not the one I tried to get Cheez-It’s from. It is entirely mechanical and from the 1960’s. You get your candy using levers and coin slots. I like the color, and I like the prices.

Now, here’s a picture of the one in the NLM canteen:

NLM canteen vending machine
NLM canteen vending machine

It is important to note that parts of the design have not changed. We have a large machine with a glass front and a mechanism to tell the machine what you want. What has changed is the mechanism and the exact nature of the human-machine communication.

The first thing I noticed when trying to get my Cheez-It’s was that the prices are not listed near the food. I’m a price-conscious snacker, and I found this design feature stressful. The NLM canteen vending machine is less transparent about its pricing than the old vending machine pictured earlier. I had to click the interface 3 times before I could find the price of the snack, making comparison shopping very difficult. Comparison shopping on the 1960’s vending machine only required a quick glance at the glass. In this way, clearly communicating pricing is accomplished more effectively and efficiently with less advanced technology.

Not to get too off the topic of vending machines, but I see this as part of a larger trend towards opaque pricing schemas and the overall blackboxing of technology. As our technology becomes more advanced, the exact mechanisms by which that technology succeeds are rendered more invisible, more indecipherable. As the technology becomes more convoluted, companies can take advantage of a general lack of understanding in order to price their technology goods, or the goods that their technology helps sell, in ways that a consumer would not appreciate if they better understood the exact ways in which the technology and the systems surrounding that technology function. But, I think Latour and blackboxing will be another blog post for another time. Back to vending machines!

The interface on the NLM canteen vending machine uses a grocery store cart as a design metaphor in order to help users understand how to navigate this overly complicated interface for getting snacks. At first, I thought this was strange. Yes, one buys food at grocery stores and at vending machines, but one rarely equates these two actions. I would never need a grocery cart at a vending machine, and I eat at vending machines pretty often.

Bring your cart to carry your Cheez-It's
Bring your cart to carry your Cheez-It’s

But, while ranting about this vending machine to fellow NDSR resident, Valerie Collins, (I told you I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it), she pointed out something I hadn’t considered. The shopping cart design is not taken from a grocery store; rather, that design metaphor is taken from internet shopping sites, like Amazon.

Screenshot from August 14, 2015
Screenshot from August 14, 2015

The resemblance seems pretty clear, and since the interface is digital, I am inclined to think that the designer borrowed the idea for the shopping cart from internet sites rather than from physical grocery stores.

What we see here, then, is a design metaphor taken from the physical world (grocery stores) implemented online (at Amazon and other sites) and then re-implemented on a physical machine with a digital interface. This vending machine helps illustrate a feed-back loop for design practices that, in the end, may not serve to create better designed goods. If I have not made it clear already, I hate this vending machine. I find it overly complicated, unhelpful, and generally poorly conceived. The implementation of a digital interface does not make the machine friendlier to users, and I cannot imagine it is easy to repair either.

So, the question becomes, why switch to a digital interface when it does not serve the users well? Why design with more advanced tools if those tools are not intrinsically helpful for that use case? Perhaps the new digital interface serves the needs of the company in some way that is not apparent to me. Does it produce tracking data that the company finds helpful? I don’t know. But, I will be sure to consider my experiences with the NLM canteen vending machine as I plan and design tools for library and archive users. Sometimes the best tool is not the most advanced one.

One last lesson learned: people look at you like you are crazy when you take cell phone photos of vending machines.