Designed in 2 Minutes?

Friday, December 10, 2004

Library swipe card readers

In the Main Library, where I work as a Computing Help Assistant, there are barcode readers in the entrance lobby to ensure authorised access by University ID card. Every student or staff member has to swipe in and the systems has been designed to operate as quickly as possible. Here's how it should work:

  • The person enters the building and queues at one of the three entry gates.
  • When reaching the gate they hold their card an inch above the reader panel (to save having to put it physically on the panel then trying to pick it up again).
  • Providing the card is valid and can be read, the gates swiftly open to allow the person to continue to walk through.

If you get it right (and there's no queue) you can approach the gates at walking pace, extend your arm with the card in hand, and be through the other side of the gates without having to slow down. It's that fast. I love it.

However the system falls down at one simple point - a significant number of users don't seem to understand how the reader panel works.

The panel's laser beam is deliberately focussed to a plane about an inch above the glass of the panel. This, as mentioned above, is so that users don't have to place the card on the panel then spend valuable seconds attempting to pick it up off the flat surface using their fingernails.

But most peoples' prior exposure to barcode readers will have been in supermarkets where the checkout operator usually (traditionally) places the object directly on the barcode reader panel. So they assume they should do the same when entering the Library with their ID card.

The card reader is deliberately long-sighted, meaning that users who place their cards on the reader panel then get frustrated that their card appears not to be readable, and they try rubbing the card up and down the panel as if it was a box of cornflakes at the checkout. After a significant time they may either realise their mistake or someone else who's already realised what's going on may point out to them that they need to hold the card above the reader.

So, as usual, Library staff have had to resort to hand-made notices to help users to get around design flaws or limitations in the sytem (witness the Learning Centre front doors which have had no end of problems and have at least three notices explaining how to enter the building!)

A bit more research into user tendencies before deploying new technologies is usually worth the time and money it takes!


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