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back to article Sysadmins: Don't get in your own way

I remember the first time I saw these automated supermarket tills. They intrigued me. Yet I was also afraid of the things. I was afraid that despite all of my knowledge and training I wouldn't be able to figure it out and I would end up looking like a fool. I avoided them for three years; the basis of this avoidance nothing more …

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WTF?

WTF

was that about? Pointless waste of time.

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FAIL

Quite Agree

The whole article was padding. Maybe we should say the Lords Prayer afterwards?

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Happy

Oh, it is to laugh :)

Trevor, I want to one day live in a world where I can get the beancounters and management to sign off on the money/time required to give the people I support *the tools they want in a way that works*.

I know the dream is to have an awesome, simple, well-documented setup - but that's not always possible. Try working support in academia some time, and see how far you get when you're providing support for a senior academic who "knows" how to use computers and therefore does not accept anything you say about computing or IS which doesn't fit their personal paradigm of computing (in which, I should add, the role of the sysadmin is basically a sort of digital sweepie, because of course if the sysadmins had any brains at all they wouldn't be sysadmins, they'd be academics!).

"Don't get in your own way" is great advice, but it applies to far more people than just sysadmins.

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Unexpected item in bagging area

Where do you shop?

The self-checkouts I've experienced seem to be a perfect example of a system where the requirements have been overly simplified and as a result only works for a small proportion of the tasks a user might want it to do.

Buying a bottle of milk? Works fine.

Buying several bags' worth of shopping? Sorry, can't cope.

Buing something really light? Sorry, can't cope.

Buying a bottle of wine or other age-restricted product? Sorry, can't cope.

Have a rucksack that already contains items bought in another store? Sorry, can't cope.

Even when they do work, they're incredibly annoying. "Please put the item in the bag". "Please take the item out of the bag". "Please do the hokey-cokey and turn around". And so forth.

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Anonymous Coward

I can't stand having it shout the same order at me constantly.

Oddly this still seems to stump the umpteen imbeciles stood before you who are too busy licking the screen or something.

Why do the cashiers work anyway? that's what they're there for.

One of my mates swears he once saw a seedy looking gent stood in the queue clutching only a nuts magazine and 2 fray bentos pies.

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Where does Trevor shop?

Probably Canada, perhaps they order these things better there.

The first time I used one of these, I rapidly put all the machines out of commission trying to scan a bottle of wine. But rather than: "this is an age-restricted product, please wait for assistance", you get: "unexpected item in the bagging area", which tells you nothing. I suppose I should have worked out that human intervention would be required, but I was used to a human on the checkout, and no-one has queried whether I am old enough to purchase alcohol for 30 years.

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Alert

"Have you scanned your Club Card?"

Coming from the computer, which should damn well *know* whether I've scanned my club card or not, this is yet another annoyance of these machines.

But the biggest fail of these things is the lag. You scan an item ... you get no beep, and nothing changing on the screen, you wait... when nothing happens, you go back and re-scan it ... then get a beep ... an another beep; you're charged for two of that item, and need the store-clerk/machine-babysitter to make the correction. But it's inconsistent as to when you have a "scan-ahead buffer" and when you don't.

Are they looking up prices on a mainframe computer via a communications link which uses an Earth-Moon-Earth radio bounce?

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Facepalm

Hardware stores

They've started using them as well, which means you're totally out of luck with a bagful of miscellaneous hardware, or a large unscannable item like a ladder. I can write the price/sku/stock# on the bag for the cashier to verify, but I certainly can't do a barcode.

The local Home Depot recently went to automated checkout ONLY, and now wonder why their parking lot is empty, and the Lowe's across the street is full. "It must be the poor economy!"

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Unexpected item in the bagging area

http://youtu.be/lDLRM8RWKCA

http://youtu.be/xSKfSqiQdUo

Fairly standard.

Usually, the "unexpected item" are some bags...

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Unhappy

automated supermarket tills

> ... I was absolutely floored by how simple they were. Here was a computer that "just worked"

Showoff. So how do you avoid the "Unrecognised item in bagging area" errors that plague the rest of us?

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"Unrecognised item in bagging area."

In 7 years, none of the widget counters at any of the 8 stores I use that have them have ever done this to me. So...I have no idea how I avoid it. It has simply never come up!

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FAIL

It means you touched the bagging area

They have a set of scales in the 'bagging' area, and at least in Tescos and Morrisons touching the scales will trigger that alert.

So if you try to open a bag to put your shopping in, it alarms.

And God help you if you forgot to put all your re-usable bags on the scales before you started, or use put your handbag on that handy shelf to search for your cash.

It is primarily due to stupid requirements and/or implementation - seriously, if somebody is trying to steal stuff they aren't going to scan the barcode or put it on that shelf.

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Go

Yum, housekeeping.

"...then it's time to identify which element of your IT stack is holding everything back and get rid of it."

I'd probably trash half of my infrastructure with this philosophy. I'm amazed how much of this garbage gets foisted on me because some marketing or admin wonk insisted they needed Product X.

Dear employers and/or clients: If you're reading this, please let me evaluate these products before forcing me to deploy them. I will save you tons of IT support hours before the fact.

"So how do you avoid the "Unrecognised item in bagging area" errors that plague the rest of us?"

What errors? Where I'm from automated tills don't do this. Mind you, Wal-Mart probably has a larger R&D budget than Superstore, or at least they do in Winnipeg. This is a case in point for the article: Superstore needs to fix this problem or replace the faulty bit with a bit that just works.

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You guys are going to make me shop at Superstore just to see what their check outs are like. The Sobeys/IGA ones here are fantastic, and I am pretty sure Safeway bought the same units, with a slightly different payment option configuration.

I’ve never had an “unrecognised item in bagging area” problem in the many years I’ve been using it. (The one by my house was a test store for the whole program.) The worst time I ever had was trying to hunt-and-peck through the menu to tell the thing that it should weigh my grapes and determine the price because I had lost the barcode. Even then, it meant only a few extra seconds as I poked at the screen.

Six years now with these things (almost seven?), and they haven’t given me grief once. Truly astonished. If beating Apache (and all it’s various mod_insanity) into submission was this easy, I’d be out of a job!

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access problems

Self service tills don't 'just work' for loads of people with access requirements.

You can't use them if you aren't able to lift bags off the counter, like my granny who uses one of those tartan trolleys.

You can't use them if you have a hearing impairment like I do. They all talk in the same voice so I can't tell if it's my till or another that is talking - very frustrating.

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The unexpected item comes from changes in the weight on the scales. Each item is assigned a weight in file maintenance and likely a tolerance. For small light items this goes out of the window. It is a monumental pain in the arse. Stores where this doesn't occur likely have a higher tolerance and so are also likely to be easier to fool (i.e. steal from) but they have placed customer experience over losses from theft. This is all theoretical as I don't work for said stores.

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Those checkouts are awful

The reason being that they break the model which everyone has spent years learning of how checkouts are supposed to work. Conveyor belt, scan your things, another conveyor belt, put in bags, pay. Having to put your stuff in a specific place after scanning is not at all intuitive especially when the weight sensor is carefully disguised as the empty bags dispenser. Pay by cash and you will be baffled again as your incomplete change rattles into the little tray - who would think of looking separately down around their knee level to get any paper money.

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FAIL

In The Land Of Flying Pigs

..all of the article would be true. I recently did a project in a major european datacenter which probably handles about 30 billion euros in sales transactions for a major european travel corporation. I was the one lucky guy doing interesting work (perl & web development), while the employees of my customer where busy updating some crappo virus scanner, rebooting huge firewall systems which failed for unknown reasons and fighting with a stupid issue tracking system from a big-$$ computer vendor.

They were basically bogged down in handling the problems created by a ton of commercial software their bosses had bought for them. They had zero freedom to get rid of that claptrap, as they had not made the purchasing decision, nor did they have the power to remove the systems making trouble. They were the cyber janitors who had to use broken brooms, so to speak. And certainly they were not allowed to build their own, better brooms, despite the fact that they could, given some time.

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Boffin

Narrowmindedness

Yep, a load of crap forced upon the workers by management is a common plague. I was in the fortunate position to steer our midsized biz away from tape backups (had 4 servers with tape drives, just to pull the data in time for nightlies, granted the CTO wanted full nightlies...) to a D2D2D method. Unfortunately, there's not many affordable solutions out there for how we wanted/needed to do it. A NetApp VTL gets halfway there, but that's a 5-digit figure for an "almost fits" solution. Needless to say, a Linux server and some development time, we have a proper functional system now. Not quite as clean as a pretty packaged NetApp server, but it does precisely what we wanted.

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The moral of the story ...

... is to make the users do all the work themselves.

Whether the alternative - either for the helpdesk or the checkout - is one that involves lots of waiting, having to deal with barely-trained & disgruntled employees, having to beg for the most basic services (or carrier bags), trying not to appear too annoyed ... w h i l e ... t h e y ... w o r k ... a t ... t h e i r ... o w n ... g l a c i a l .. p a c e ... or suddenly decide to change shifts and stop everything for 5 minutes.

Faced with that, it's no wonder employees want to bring in their own kit and operate "self-service"

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Thumb Up

All I care about is the length of time I have to stand in a queue. Automated checkouts have definitely improved my Tesco experience in that respect. It's totally worth the occasional baggage hiccup IMHO.

PS drop box is the more accepted "it just works" technology for rambling anecdotes, with the better backstory that they are making a ton of money while Tesco is losing market share.

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Anonymous Coward

My chief complaint though is that I am paying for the checkout operator yet I am doing the work when using such a checkout. It is yet another way the supermarkets intend to increase profits whilst convincing the masses that it is "better for them".

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The core of it is: Is this a computer, or an appliance?

I thought about this when I was building my Media PC.

Done before of course, but it's still a full-blown PC none the less.

It came down to this, using a toaster analogy: If I insert a piece of toast and press the lever, is it acceptable for the toaster to say: "You have 28 updates to download, please wait approximately 23 minutes while they are downloaded, applied, then reboot half a dozen times before you can get your bread back in a blackened form".

Bascially, when you press a button, you expect a function, not back chat.

And that's the critical difference.

Sometimes that's easy to implement, sometimes not-so-easy.

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Anonymous Coward

Actually

I don't think it "helpful" for a non-appliance to do that either. Or to do behind-your-back anything. That is already a (botched) attempt at appliance-ising a, well, it's not really a general computing device. It's a desktop environment simulator. Like the toy post office till I used to play with as a child, only many, many people get to stare at it all day.

Personally, in a setup that comes with vendor-supplied patches, I'd expect a note somewhere (like, the mailbox that receives the regular system performance reports) with a description of the updates and their caveats, and when I'd like to schedule them, please.

But then, I also can read and understand security advisories. The patches from redmond assume you can't, that you barely know how to move the mouse cursor, and so they're deliberately obtuse and unhelpful (ever tried to read those patch descriptions?) while carrying all sorts of indecipherable warnings. So every release they think of some new way to give you less leeway avoiding the bloody annoying buggers. That alone would be enough for me to ditch the entire platform. Which I've done, years ago.

To me, rather, the difference between appliance and general tool is how versatile it is. The appliance does one thing in a way that it "just works". Indeed, as you say, you stick in bread, you press the button, and you get toast.

The general tool needs configuration, needs practice to wield, possibly needs careful care and maintenance, but can do far more, is adaptable to many more situations, and so on. It might be more chatty, but something that habitually has to distract you with lots of popups and messages and things, well, that's just not a very good user interface.

If this means that what most of us tend to think of as "the" general computing tool doesn't quite look so general or so well-interfaced any longer, well, there's a reason I ditched it.

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Anonymous Coward

Usable computer systems are not developer's proble ?

It's the developers who are screwing the pooch thoroughly.

Some time ago I had to fight with a piece of software which kept refusing to print saying that end of page has been detected. Starting that day, my sympathy and confidence in developers have been affected very badly. Also reading those final pages from the Windows Magazine which illustrate various (and sometimes hilarious) error messages encountered by Windows users did nothing to improve the situation.

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Anonymous Coward

Because, obviously...

... one halfwit with a compiler is representative for an entire planet full of people writing instructions for computers to execute. Just like one person saying stupid things on the telly means that all persons on tellies must naturally be stupid. I think they even put a box in there to ensure that. Which incidentally proves that all electronics engineers are in league with the devil. Really now, if you want the daily fail you know where to find it.

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Anonymous Coward

Oi, Trevor. Reality calling.

Let's start with a nicely pedantic nitpick. "Intuitive words or icons" mean you have to be able to read them and/or understand what the imagery is supposed to convey. That is, you overlook the training needed because it's so basic you assume everyone has it, but that's not the same as no training needed at all; the barrier is there despite it being (ridiculously) low. That is to say, put the same setup in rural China or darkest Borneo or wherever, and they won't fare as easy.

Thus, "intuitive" presupposes an untruth; you can put the barrier ridiculously low, but it's still there. Quite hard to remember when you actually have a well-exercised skillset. And there is a price to pay for this low entry: A cap on efficiency for the experienced user. Moreover, appliances do exactly one thing, no less, no more.

Your epiphany isn't exactly new. Your points are good ones, within contexts where they fit. And plenty of people got this wrong; "standardised" on things that are just the wrong thing to pin down. The industry is full of that, in fact. But you can't fashion an appliance out of everything. And again, "intuitive" doesn't really exist, there is always some bar to entry.

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Anonymous Coward

Oi Trevor, part deux. Who cut the maximum posting length in half?

The solution to using general computing tools well is having the skills to use them, not to appliance-ise every single task. A general toolchest isn't filled with cookie-cutters alone. Yet some platforms have gathered mostly cookie-cutting equipment for some reason. Personally, I prefer the old toolshed with lots of general tools that work together and even cookie-cutter-cutters among them. I paid for the learning curve. To me, it was worth the trade-off.

What is good for you, for your users? I don't know. I do know what your options boil down to: You can lower the bar or you can teach'em to jump. Whichever you pick depends on how much expressive power the tasks they want to accomplish demand, how much they can stand, how much effort you're willing to spend to lower the bar for them, and so on, and so forth. In fact, you may well have to replace the users if they can't learn to jump high enough.

This isn't strange, it's a fact of management. IT brings fantastically powerful tools and options for making appliances, but there's still the trade-off. Making good appliances is actually quite hard, it requires a lot of tinkering and testing. What was that again about making something foolproof giving rise to better fools?

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Far quicker for me to use the machine myself than to get someone else to serve me.

(More convenient for getting rid of change you don't want in your pocket also - get rid of it and then pay the balance by card - cashiers couldn't be bothered to do that.)

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Anonymous Coward

What was the point of this article, exactly?

The Cliff's Notes version of this article: "Users don't care what's inside, they just want it to work. Hey, look at supermarket checkouts - just like that. Loser BOFHs of the world, take note."

<rant>

Leaving aside the choice of supermarket checkouts as an example, what utterly patronizing claptrap.

We KNOW that users don't care what's inside. We KNOW that they just want it to work. You think we get off on all-night debugging sessions and angry conference calls? But guess what. Life is complex, and we got into this game because we liked the challenge of making roses out of mud.

</rant>

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Anonymous Coward

Somebody

has got to worry about that sh*t. It might be you, it might be your boss, it might be your cloud provider. Would you put petrol in your diesel car just because they come out of the same sort of squirty thing outside Tesco's?

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Thumb Up

Nice article!

Quite frankly I think I got every bit of what the article wanted to get across and personally I fully agree. And although others have a very fair point when it comes to big businesses (techies vs. mangies) there are more aspects to such situations. I've also witnessed situations in which the mangies suggested certain solutions or preferences to the techies only to be met with immediate disdain. Its been a while, but iirc something in the likes of wanting to use Outlook instead of GroupWise. Also because they were already using Office (95 iirc). "Completely impossible" was the immediate verdict. Note that the talk was only about e-mail, nothing related to agenda sharing and such.

In general I too think many developers who are involved with bigger projects are losing perspective of what the end user wants and only stare themselves blind on the project. Its a common trend IMO. Windows 8 ditches the start menu for Metro? Ugh! Why not both? Ubuntu coming up with the "ultimate" GUI; a menu where you type in your options? (and of course no way to go back to the normal menu).

One of my servers runs CentOS 6 which came with a new Midnight Commander.. When I need to search for a file I press F9 - C - F, followed by 'tab' if I need to search for contents (which happens most of the time because filenames are quicker found using 'find' or 'locate'). This is on '2006-09-25-14'.

The new version (4.7.0.2): F9 - C - F, followed by 'tab' because I want to search for contents. Hey, where did the asterisk go which was always put there by default? So now I have to press F9 - C - F, then look for the * and then press tab to start typing what I need. Yeah, MUCH easier NOT!

Those are very STUPID design changes because it makes working with the product actually harder and not easier. And of course all of these examples have no way which allows me to bring back the behavior I've been used to for many /years/ so far (12 years at least when looking at Midnight Commander!!).

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Anonymous Coward

Automated supermarket tills

> I remember the first time I saw these automated supermarket tills .. When I finally bit the bullet and walked up to my grocery store nemesis, I was absolutely floored by how simple they were. Here was a computer that "just worked".

Except they get a little fatigued late in the evening after a hard days word ...

http://i.imgur.com/Tlzh0.jpg

http://i.imgur.com/3Woua.jpg

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Anonymous Coward

hmm...

You just have to look at the linux/windows flamewars to know that a large proportion of techies are far more bothered about what they know and protecting their niche knowledge than are interested in learning something new and expanding it.

Learning something new is hard, mindlessly slagging something off to justify not learning it is easy, but ultimately unfulfilling.

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WTF?

ROFL

"You just have to look at the linux/windows flamewars to know that a large proportion of techies are far more bothered about what they know and protecting their niche knowledge than are interested in learning something new and expanding it."

After having spent years wrestling with M$ and the artificial barriers it puts in place in getting things done I moved to linux and have been happy. What do I do with linux? I automate Windows system repairs. DHCP boot, offline virus scanning, registry fixes so the things can boot again, disaster migration to different hardware, WSUS replacement, data recovery, password resets, automated installs.

Yes I could have bought software to do each function, but it was less hassle to write scripts and python code to leverage existing stuff within linux than to perform the same operations with the software I could have bought!

I know way more about the operation of windows than I do linux. Yet I am more proficient at getting things done in linux, and it all boils down to the profit vs productivity in the design.

You wonder why some of us are passionate against windows?

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Anonymous Coward

Cash, Farmers Market, Victory Garden, Some Common Sense Required

I find things are more simple, The price per pound is on the thing, you dump em in the scale to weigh, the farmer stands right there, you pay him.

Also you can plant things, and in a few months boom, you have herbs, vegetables

Those computers don't work when you buy beer. They fail

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