PCM Wk 3: Vending Machine Observation

One of my most treasured place in Manhattan is the Bobst Library, especially it’s dead-quiet graduate student working area. It is the best place for writing and blogging, as I am doing now. This means that I need to pass by the common eating and drinking area of the basement floor in order to get to the study area. And occasionally I would give in. I can’t help myself but I somehow make my way over to the room full of NYU purple vending machines. It is a welcoming, somehow eerily futuristic semi-circle room. Even the sounds that the vending machine makes are machine-like and robotic.


In the past, I would stand for minutes in front of that machine trying deciding between the many different options. Of course, I would always want the bbq chips, but then the health-conscious side of me would gravitate towards the veggie chips and the minutes long cycle would continue in my head as I stare at the options. A couple of times, I’ve even walked away thinking I really shouldn’t be doing this. But then a couple minutes later, I’d end up right back in that room, ready to pay for a snack.

However, today, instead of being a user. I was an observer. It was fascinating to see how long other people would stay there trying to decide what to get. I thought I was just being indecisive. But it was a great revelation to see other people doing the same thing I do – stare for minutes, then either pay or leave. And in the beginning of this video below, you can even see the person deciding not to get anything after staring at this fluorescent glass box (just like I’ve done many times before).

It got me to think, why are we so indecisive in front of the machine? The moment I walked up to one, I knew why. Look at how many options we are presented with (See image below)! It reminds me of a scaled down grocery store – an aisle that’s neatly packed into a box. It’s hard to even take in the whole landscape of options. This is just information overload, and I personally think there is such a thing as having too many options.


Then this screen next to the snacks and drinks would flip through different graphics that feel corporate and cold. There’s a touch screen text at the bottom to help guide us, which makes sense, but seems a little self explanatory since there are no physical buttons. But still I appreciate it. The screens it would scroll through would be short instructions on how many different options you could pay with: by coins, by card, by dollars.

I still remember the first time I used these specific vending machines and how long it took me to understand how to pay with the card. I remember being so confused as to why nothing would happen when I kept swiping. I would keep swiping and nothing would happen. After many tries and actually switching over to another machine I realized I had been swiping the wrong way.

The way you pay with your card is an odd interaction. Vertical swiping is not your standard style of swiping these days. You usually don’t turn it on the side to swipe. And I can easily imagine people putting their cards in that main horizontal swipe slot. The side vertical is not an intuitive act for people to do, especially because usually if you are swiping vertically the top and bottom are open so the card swipes through and comes back out the other way. But for this vending machine it doesn’t do that. You need to insert the card and swipe while still having your card stuck in the slot.

Because there is barely any indication when you swipe your card if it didn’t work. The screen would not read error, or tell you to swipe your card the other way. It would simply act like it didn’t read it. That is one of it’s biggest interaction flaw, in my opinion. The fact that there is no feedback system when you do something wrong.

However, I noticed that the people I was observing were able to pay for their snack with ease, but part of me wonders if it took people one or two times to get it wrong in order to finally get it right. I think there is a learning curve with this machine.

The whole process is mechanical and (at times) overwhelming. As “Design of Everyday Object” mentions “why do these these objects add to the stresses of life, rather than reduce them?” This whole process didn’t necessarily add to my stress, but it definitely added to my list of more things that I have to figure out. It intensifies indecision; it actually requires us to contemplate….about SNACKS of all things.