Recently, in the Usability category…

Magnifying glass over a URL Fidelity, the company that manages my 401k, sent me the following letter:


We are sending you this letter to remind you that you can:

  • Access your online statement by logging into NetBenefitsSM, selecting PLATINUM EQUITY, and clicking Online Statement in the View menu on your plan’s Summary page.

  • Print your statement using NetBenefits, or obtain a paper version by calling your plan’s toll-free number at (800) 835-5095, free of charge

  • Change the way statements are delivered to you by visiting Mail Preferences under the Your Profile tab

Online Statements let you view and print statements for any time period within the past 24 months. Remeber, you can also visit NetBenefits at any time to manage your workplace benefits and access learning tools and resources to help you stay on track toward reaching your retirement goals.

If you have any questions or need assistance, please contact us by visiting NetBenefits or by calling your plan’s toll-free customer service number.

Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I do have a question: What’s the URL? They mail me a letter to extol the virtues of using their online system, and never think to tell me where it is? The letter didn’t even mention the main Fidelity site. Not that it would have helped — you won’t find NetBenefits mentioned on their home page. If you guess that you need to click the login link you will finally find NetBenefits.

I’m a geek, so of course I went looking for the site — although it was for the challenge and not so I could use the site. Most people, though, probably just threw the letter away when they realized it didn’t include the one crucial piece of information necessary to take advantage of everything else in the letter.

NetworkWorld has an article about self-checkout. Since this has become a recurring subject here, I thought I should mentions some highlights:

According to IHL, consumers report buying junk food, supermarket tabloids and the like 45% less frequently while scanning their own purchases than when checking out the old-fashioned way.

Which makes perfect sense, when you think about it — self-checkout lines tend to be shorter, so you’re not waiting your turn as long. And instead of standing there waiting for someone else to ring you up, you’re busy doing it yourself.

…Retailers such as Meijer and Kroger have adjusted by offering items such as rotisserie chickens and fresh baked breads to rely more on the sense of smell to drive sales rather than simply visuals when trapped in a staffed lane.”

Our Albertson’s has started putting baskets of French bread next to the checkout. The self-checkout there also talks to me, reminding me to use a loyalty card I do not have. I suspect it will eventually offer me suggestions for other things I might want based on my purchases.

Shoppers logged $111 billion worth of self-checkout purchases last year, an increase of 35 percent over 2004, according to IHL. Fewer than a fifth of consumers report using self-checkout every time it’s available, while 29 percent say they do so only when the staffed lines look daunting.

The biggest gripe? That’s predictable: 55% say it’s when something goes screwy and they have to wait for a human being to come over and fix it.

Which is why I think customers who have proven to be good self-checkers (*cough*me*cough*) should be given system logins just like the employees so they can clear their own errors.

Be sure to also read the comments on that article. The first one confirms my “natural selection” theory of self-checkout. Those who adapt, thrive.

Question: How much does a head of lettuce weigh?

(Stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this.)

Astute reader that you are, I’m sure you immediately answered, “It depends.” Well, you’re right. In my quick Google search I did not find a definitive answer to how many varieties of lettuce there are, but some advertiser would eagerly sell me over 40 different lettuce seeds, so let’s assume there are at least that many. I’ll narrow it down a bit, then: How much does an adult head of iceburg lettuce, like you would buy in any grocery store, weigh?

Unfortunately, the answer is still, “it depends.” Circumference and leaf density are going to be your main variables at this point. Still, we should be able to define a range of weights that 99% or more of the iceburg lettuce heads you see in a grocery store will fall into. According to the University of California Vegetable Research and Information Center’s report on Iceberg Lettuce Production in California, heads of iceburg lettuce are typically shipped in 50 pound cartons containing 24 to 30 heads. These numbers give us a range of 1.67 - 2.08 pounds per head. We should probably extend our range to something like 1.5 - 2.25 to reduce the number of outliers.

Still, we’re only guessing. What we really need is sample data. What if we could weigh millions of heads of lettuce? Then, do you suppose it would be possible to define a range that would encompass 99% or more of iceburg lettuce heads?

Apparently not.

I say that because, despite Wal-Mart having access to that volume of statistical data — over a long period of time — they still do not know, even approximately, how much a head of lettuce weighs.

We eat a lot of salads and, consequently, buy a lot of lettuce. Lettuce is sold by the head, not by the pound, so it makes sense that when I buy lettuce, I buy the biggest head I can. And when I shop at Wal-Mart, I always use the self-checkout. Nearly every time, the self-checkout gives me a “weight error” on the lettuce, because the machine thinks the weight is outside of the boundary of what a head of lettuce should be. I then have to stop and wait for the error to be cleared by a checker who doesn’t know what the error actually means. And since they don’t know, they don’t report it, and the problem never gets fixed.

If this was a rare occurance, I wouldn’t think anything of it. But it happens almost every time, which means a statistically significant percentage of their lettuce falls outside the acceptable range they have programmed for the weight of a head of lettuce.

From a developer’s point-of-view, I see two possible solutions: one easy but buggy, the other complicated but accurate. They could simply extend whatever range they are using. Probably a half pound on either side of the range would do it. You will still have outliers, but a lot fewer. The other option would be to constantly recalculate the range. Every time someone buys a head of lettuce, re-average based on the new data. I imagine it wouldn’t be long before they had enough data that outliers would almost never happen.

I suppose there’s a third option. If all you lettuce farmers out there (which I choose to believe is a statistically significant portion of my audience) would start weighing each head of iceburg lettuce you grow and sending the data to Wal-Mart, they could re-calculate based on that data. Here’s the address:

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Home Office
702 S.W. 8th Street
Bentonville, AR 72716

Of course, from a user’s point-of-view, I’ve already solved this problem for myself: I won’t ever buy lettuce at Wal-Mart again.

I can’t say this enough: Details are important. When you provide a service to your customers, it’s the little things that are so vitally important.

Case in point…

Continue reading “No Access”…

I’ve been fighting the urge to write about the AutoLink feature in the beta version of Google’s Toolbar. Thankfully, now I don’t have to. Yoz Grahame has an excellent write-up that knocks down all the specious arguments that have been raised against AutoLink. Read and decide for yourself.

Imagine this scenario: You visit a museum for the first time. After walking around for a while, you go up to someone who works there.

You: Hi, I really enjoy this exhibit! Where is the bathroom?

Employee: Thank you.

That exchange is followed by awkward silence as you realize you are not going to get an answer to your question. Of course, the setting doesn’t matter — this could just as easily be in a store, a salon, etc. No matter where it happened, it would be just as bizarre.

Unless, of course, it happened in email.

Continue reading “Communicating with Customers”…

We need to start applying the Geneva Conventions to the war on spam. Specifically, the parts about protecting civilians during times of war.

I’m going somewhere with this, trust me.

Continue reading “Oh, the Humanity”…

Our local Wal-Mart just installed self-checkout lanes. I know these have been around for a while (I used one in Nashville several years ago), but I hadn’t seen any in Oklahoma until another Wal-Mart, slightly farther away, installed them just before Christmas. I’ve been using whatever excuse I could to go to the self-checkout store, but now I don’t have to anymore.

I love self-checkout. It’s faster for me, and less wasteful: I can fit about twice as much in each bag as their checkers do.

The way they’ve implemented this system has it’s good and bad points, and I’d like to explore that briefly.

Continue reading “Keep Moving”…