The self service checkouts at my local Sainsbury’s recently got a refreshed user interface.

Oooo, a new thing to play with. Oooo, how have they improved? Oooo, a new thing to pull part.

Just so we’re clear from the start: In England since late 2015, large shops have to charge 5p for every new carrier bag a customer needs. You can read the detail about this over on

Anyway, on these new Sainsbury’s self service checkouts, when you finish scanning your shopping you tap a Total & Pay button on the checkout’s screen. The screen then shows:

Please enter the number of new £0.05 bags you’ve used. If you’ve already scanned them, select ‘No Bags’.

This content really, really, really gets to me.

If I had already scanned some bags why doesn’t the self service checkout know already? The checkout is storing an inventory of my shopping as I scan the items. I can see it on screen building up as I scan my shopping. There’s logic work here the system can do instead of putting the load onto the user.

The content could reflect the context more here to be simpler, more clearer. Some starters for ten, trying to stick closely to the question and “number pad” response:

You’ve scanned one new bag already. How many other bags did you use?

You haven’t scanned any new bags. How many bags have you used?

The user can then choose from:

  • None
  • One
  • Two
  • …and so on.

Of course, this is obvious. If they could have done that - got the content being a bit more responsive to context - they would have done that, surely.

But, I am pragmatic. So I am going to presume that due to reasons the above is not possible.

In which case the content is even lazier to me. There’s some hard work to be done here to make the checkouts’ users experience simpler, more understandable.

Let’s look at that content again:

Please enter the number of new £0.05 bags you’ve used. If you’ve already scanned them, select ‘No Bags’.

Situation: I haven’t scanned any new bags yet, but I know I have used one. I need to tell the checkout that, and I can, yup. I’ll just press 1.

Please enter the number of new £0.05 bags you’ve used. If you’ve already scanned them, select ‘No Bags’.

Situation: I have scanned a new bag already, but I also used another new bag which I haven’t scanned. I need to tell the checkout I have used another bag. What do I press? It is asking:

Please enter the number of new £0.05 bags you’ve used.


  • “Do I just need to press 1 for that one unscanned bag?”
  • “Do I need to press 2 because I have two bags altogether?”


Please enter the number of new £0.05 bags you’ve used. If you’ve already scanned them, select ‘No Bags’.

Situation: Hang on. I’ve brought my own carrier bag but needed to use a new bag – and I’ve forgotten if I have scanned the new bag. Um. I’ll have to go back.

(I have seen someone in this situation and watching them go back and search through their shop was a jaw-dropper.)

I could go on a bit more, but I won’t. You get the picture. In a nutshell the content is ambiguous, smacks of laziness, just feels the situations haven’t been thought through, let alone tested with users. If this stuff was tested with users, what users?

If design in these situations is humanising technology, people need to know that a given technology will help them, will guide them when needed, clearly. A lot of these experiences are replacing an actual person. There needs to be some sort of understandable, unambiguous commentary.

I find this particularly unusual from the supermarkets sector, where brand and tone of voice are always part of their proposition. Supermarkets rely on their customers, and they’re all fighting for their market share. The marketing plays a part in that. Any potential customer that says “Where shall I shop today?” can be swayed.

Marketing messages and the actual experience of shopping can come undone at the “end” of a shopping trip. And these checkouts dent those experiences.

These checkouts, to me, reflect what a supermarket thinks of its customers - and how the supermarket sees technology, especially at the “business end” of the experience, the actual cash transaction. This experience is integral. How does using these machines feel? Forgetting the supermarket’s ‘brand assets’ (the logo, the colours, the picture of the member of staff in that supermarket’s uniform) do these checkouts reflect the way these supermarkets talk with you in other ways?

At a checkout run by another person. In the aisles when you ask a member of staff where can you find such and such. At customer services when you take something back. On the posters hanging from the ceiling. In the ad you saw on TV last night in the ad break of Corrie.

These checkouts don’t for me, they reflect a lack of considering the people that choose to go to that shop. They reflect a lack of considering the people that choose to pay for their shopping using those… machines. That choice shouldn’t be punished by a lesser experience. It will always be a less human experience, but that doesn’t stop it from trying to be consistent. Technology limits are too often an excuse for not bothering. The real problem with technology is it is technology: You can program it to do things, you can change what it does. It just takes a little effort and thought.

My local Sainsbury’s self service checkout user interface feels careless, lazy, corners have been cut. Maybe the software could only be reskinned so far. Maybe there was a deadline. Maybe there budget restraints. Who knows.

But the stuff I am picking up on here isn’t that difficult to solve. It’s just words, you know. They’re easy to replace on-screen. The hard bit is making sure what goes there is worked through, what goes there works. It isn’t difficult. I half-worked this through on my ten minute drive home, then while I put the small shop away, and now as I’ve just banged this post out.

All it took was me valuing the experiences of users, valuing the customers as they hand their money over. That shouldn’t be a big ask.

Do you have a problem with checkouts? Share it on Twitter as a tweet, pictures, a blog post, or something else. Use the hashtag #problemwithcheckouts if you can.

This post tagged with:
supermarket checkouts, content design, technology