Re-design: Costco Checkout

Even though we don’t buy that many things in bulk, my wife and I love Costco. The one part that stinks is checking out.

Checkout at Costco is like sitting in a traffic jam, especially on Saturday morning. Costco employees try to check people out quickly, but most people have large carts filled with a lot of items.

Recently, I realized our local grocery stores and libraries have electronic self-checkout, but Costco does not. In fact, the local library is only self-checkout now.

The library, in fact, uses RFID instead of barcode scanners. With RFID, each book has a small, embedded sensor. Instead of scanning each book, you simply stack all your books on top of the checkout stand, and the computer immediately recognizes all the books you have.

Imagine a Costco with RFID. Instead of having to lift each of your items onto the conveyor belt (and then have the cashier put them back into your cart), you simply push your full cart past a sensor, and the computer tallies the items and recognizes the new RFID member card (included in your $50 annual membership) in your pocket. You pay the cashier and take your cart out to the car.

RFID technology is a little too expensive to put a sensor on every individual can of soda and pack of gum, but RFID has been used for years to track large palettes of product as they’re shipped on ships, trains, and trucks.

Since Costco deals mostly in bulk items (large cases of soda instead of six-packs), perhaps the economics of RFID can work for them.

Google’s Data-driven Redesign

Old and New: Google tested the shade of its logo and whether to use a drop-shadow.

Earlier this month, Google made a dramatic change to the design of their search results pages.

Design is always an iterative process with multiple prototypes and revisions. Usually, selecting which prototypes to use is done by an expert designer. But at Google, the users decided.

In a blog post detailing the re-design, Google explained that Google designers came up with different options, and then they tried each out to see which was the best. In the past, Google has tested small things like what shade of blue to use for link color. (If you’d like to run similar experiments on your site, you can use Google’s free Website Optimizer tool.)

In this case, the “best” meant which design produced the fastest click-throughs. Faster click-throughs mean (1) people are finding what they’re looking for faster and (2) Google can display more search results and AdWords to a person in a day.

This is the design model for the future. Human creativity creates prototypes, which are then rigorously tested in an iterative process using randomized experiments to arrive at the optimal solution.

Two things that make Google’s process successful: randomized experiments over statistically-significant numbers of users and a clear definition of “success” that is the same for the business and the users.