Lessons Of The Self-Checkout Line

Humans make better checkout attendants than machines, according to a recent article on WSJ.com. So if self-checkout machines frustrate grocery store shoppers, what does that mean for the automated tellers in your credit union?
Drew Grossman

Farhad Manjoo, the author of the Wall Street Journal piece asks, unless the store gives me an explicit price break for scanning my stuff, why exactly, should I be rejoicing about doing more work? This logic might ring true for grocery store checkout machines, but the answer is not as clear for the automated tellers common in credit union branches across the country.

Manjoo finds the human supermarket checkout attendant far superior to the self-checkout machine for the following reasons:

Humans are faster

Humans have a more pleasing, less-buggy interface

Humans don’t ask customers to look up codes for produce

Humans bag groceries

And most importantly with human checkout attendants, the customer doesn’t have to do any of the work

However, Manjoo prefers an ATM to a human teller. Why? The answer is expressed in the research of economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane in their paper Dancing With Robots.The economists found computers replace human workers only when machines meet two conditions: 1) the information necessary to carry out the task must be in a form computers understand and 2) the job must be routine enough it can be expressed in a series of rules.

Supermarket checkout machines meet the second condition, but not the first. Automated tellers, or iPad teller terminals, could meet both conditions depending on the nature of a member’s need. As long as the task is narrow and specific with repeatable problems that require little physical labor and not much cognitive flexibility, the economists give their blessing to the machine.

Technology is important and members like convenience, but there is a lesson to be learned from the supermarket self-checkout machine: there must be a benefit for the member. Technology for technology’s sake is a waste of resources and a waste of your members time. But to address specific needs, the techno-teller can be a big win. Follow the conditions laid out by Levy and Murnane and go forth into the brave new world of financial services tech.

October 23, 2013

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