Observations of People Interacting with Vending Machines

(aka – The World of UX in Afternoon Snacks)

When I tell people that I’m a Digital User Specialist at the Kansas City Public Library, the most common response I get is: “What’s that?” My fumbling attempts to explain my responsibilities are typically followed by the question, “So… what do you actually do?”

Explaining what I do is a challenge—partly because what I do is new enough that I have freedom to decide for myself the best ways to do it and I can create specific tasks as I go; and partly because my job is as much about observing and learning and thinking and conceptualizing and ideating as it is about day-to-day to-do lists (not that there aren’t plenty of those).

What follows is a semi-silly, semi-serious attempt to explain how I conceive my job…

In the last slightly-more-than-two-years, I’ve spent most of my lunches sitting in the staff break room. Consequently, I’ve had ample opportunity to observe people using the two vending machines that are located there: the snack machine and the pop machine.

I’ve identified a pattern in the ways that people go about the task of using the snack machine. The snack machine dispenses both the requested product and the user’s change simultaneously—as a result, everyone falls into one of two categories:

  1. Those who grab their change first, and then their food.
  2. Those who grab their food first, and then their change.

Moreover, this behavior appears to be consistent from person to person; I have yet to observe any individual alter the order of how they do these two things, no matter how often they use the snack machine. Once a food-first person, always a food-first person.

Unfortunately, I can’t rely on observations of people’s usage of the pop machine to reinforce this observed pattern—whereas the snack machine dispenses both product and change simultaneously, thus requiring the vendee to choose their order of action, the pop machine doesn’t dispense the change until after the product has been dispensed, and so the order of action is imposed on the vendee and they have no choice.

These are random, silly observations and my intent was to write them up in a self-mocking and humorous way (I can over-intellectualize anything!) But then I found myself seriously thinking about this as a legitimate example of UX…

It’s my job to observe how people go about their tasks and how they interact with the tools that they need to accomplish those things. It’s my job to evaluate the tools intended for these tasks—both existing tools and new ones. I do so specifically in the context of people using the library, but the principles here are universal. Learning about different sorts of users and different user strategies; thinking about user experience and interaction environments; considering wants and needs, habits and expectations, problems and abilities and limitations—these things are my full-time bailiwick.

The snack and pop vending machines in the break room represent two very different interaction paradigms:

  • The snack machine presents the user with both available actions simultaneously and requires them to choose their preferred order.
  • The pop machine presents the actions in sequence and the user has no input in the order.

I wonder how different people feel about their different interactions with these machines. For the person who is consistently change-first at the snack machine—is their interaction with the pop machine less satisfying because they’re forced into a change-last sequence of action? How do people feel about the fact that the snack machine requires them to decide a course of action, whereas the pop machine removes that stress from the interaction because they don’t have to think about it? The workings of the pop machine are such that the total duration of the interaction with it is rather long and can’t be shortened by the user, whereas the snack machine is quick to dispense and the length of the interaction is limited only by how fast the user can grab their product and change—what effect does this have on how rewarding these interactions are? Etc.

So… my job, in a nutshell, is to observe and consider these issues when it comes to library usage, and to use that understanding to inform the decisions we make, and the strategies we implement, in our efforts to improve our services to our patrons and fulfill our essential role in the larger KC-metro area community.

Does that successfully tell you what I do?


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