Are You A Cereal Killer? – Tesco’s Bad UX When Buying Spoons

As an interaction designer, I like to analyse the technology I see, and work out how it makes life easier, or in some cases, more difficult. This is a short story about how I noticed that sometimes technology can create ridiculous scenarios out of nothing.

It was a Sunday. I was working out of the office, and I had packed a pretty generic ‘sandwiches / crisps / yoghurt’ combo for the day ahead. The yoghurt looked amazing. A little vanilla number that I’d been eying up all morning. However, I’d soon come to realise I had made a grave mistake. Ok, ok… It wasn’t that dramatic, I’d just forgotten to bring a spoon!

The thought of ‘cave-mannning’ the yoghurt; using the lid as a makeshift trowel, did cross my mind. But as I’m a civilised human being, I figured I’d just go buy a new one from Tesco.

I can’t find anything I’m looking for in Tesco. I would expect to find spring onions next to the onions, but they are not. They are next to the strawberries. Perhaps this is because strawberries have a green stalk, and spring onions are green? Probably not, but it’s the only explanation I have come up with so far! Anyway, on this one occasion I was in luck. I entered the store and within three aisles, there were the spoons!

I opted for a single dessert spoon. Just one. Not a pack. Not a cutlery set. Just one lonely dessert spoon. I made my way to the till; bearing in mind that I already felt a little stupid for buying one spoon, I had fully expected to be chastised, but nothing could have prepared me for the conversation that ensued.

The till was being governed by a young, nervous looking woman. I’m not going to get into descriptions for reasons that I will discuss later, but given her reluctance to push any buttons, I would assume that she hadn’t been trained for very long.

‘BEEP’, she scanned it through. So far so good. The woman looks at the screen and looks a little uncomfortable. She looks up and says ‘it says I need to see some ID.’ I thought she was joking. ‘But… It’s a spoon?’ I replied. As if she hadn’t noticed that already, and had actually mistaken it for a chainsaw. ‘It says that it’s a restricted item, so I have to see some ID’ she stammered.

I assume from her nervousness, that this is the part where I am supposed to belittle the member of staff, and tell her how ridiculous the whole charade is. Perhaps I demand to speak to a manager, because this will get me more money-off-vouchers for being so massively inconvenienced. My driving license on that day made me twenty nine, so if I were under eighteen, my face already looks like the dishevelled after picture of a crystal meth awareness campaign. I think based on these two facts, I would have had a pretty solid case to argue back. But instead, I nod nonchalantly, hand over my ID, and then tweet about it instead.

I did a quick Google search, and I found that this is a common occurrence at Tesco tills. Newspaper articles[1][2], tweets[3], Facebook posts[4]; all of similar spoon related stories. I would have thought that the most obvious solution would be to amend the database of restricted items, and simply remove spoons. I can’t imagine it being a difficult task. Simply scroll down until you find ‘spoons’ in the ‘restricted database of doom’ (hint: they’re probably somewhere between Soft Toys and Ryvitas) and hit delete.

However, as we have already established with the ‘onions / spring onions location debate’, Tesco don’t share my logic. Instead, they responded to my tweet with an itinerary of information they needed. The exchange of tweets is below:

@abbott567 – Genuinely just got ID’d for a dessert spoon at @Tesco – is this actually a thing?

@tesco@abbott567 Hi Craig, I’m really sorry about this. It definitely is not a thing unless it was along with any sharp objects.

@tesco@abbott567 Please DM me your full name, address, email, barcode, store purchased from & a description of my colleague who ID’d you?

@tesco@abbott567 If you still have a copy of your receipt, a pic would be very helpful. I will then contact Store Management 🙂 TY – Jade

@abbott567 – .@Tesco Thanks, but not really her fault. Instead, I’d look more at why your software flags an individual dessert spoon as a restricted item

I may be being a bit harsh on Tesco. It may be that they need the barcode so they can remove it from the database, and they need the store location because perhaps different stores have different stock lists or whatever. But the ‘description of the member of staff’ part makes me uneasy. Why do they need that? This is why I refused to cooperate. If the staff need informed about spoons, then inform all of your staff about spoons. The quick Google search I performed showed this was not an isolated incident. A Daily Mail article from 2009 shows that this has been a Tesco problem for more than 6 years.

I am under the impression I was asked for ID because the woman was trying to do her job correctly. Because she was more fearful of getting in trouble at work for not asking, than she was of me for asking. We probably all know what it is like working for a large corporation, with their policies and their staff performance reviews. The pressure is on to do everything right, but to also use your initiative when it suits them. They always need a person to blame if they are left embarrassed. But I don’t blame the cashier. Nor do I want her to point her out in an identity parade, just to get her in trouble.

I think the blame lies in the design of the Tesco till system. By simply being more aware of their products, their users and their customers they could easily put an end to the ‘Spoonsgate Scandal’. It appears that despite several newspaper articles Tesco keep using the same come back. ‘We ask our colleagues to use their judgment as to whether this should be applied.’[1]

If the problem keeps on occurring, then you need to design a solution to quash it at it’s core. Wagging your finger at cashiers or stating you ask staff to make their own judgement is simply smoothing over the fractures, it isn’t solving the problem at it’s foundations. For more than six years, Tesco have been asking their members of staff to use their own judgement and common sense on this, rather than address the design flaw in their system.

A feature that simply pops up when you scan a spoon, and asks ‘Are there any knives present? YES / NO’ would probably suffice. If the cashier hits yes, then by all means do your ‘THINK 25’ checks. If the cashier hits no, then just continue with your scanning.

Sometimes the problem isn’t that hard to solve, it’s asking the right question that’s difficult, and this should be factored into your design process. If you keep encountering the same problem, then ask ‘why does this keep happening’ or ‘how can we make things easier’. Telling somebody to use their own judgement, and then telling them their judgement was wrong, is never going to solve the problem.

Anyway, to wrap this up. The vanilla yoghurt was amazing, and well worth the spoon inconvenience, so I fully expect to live happily ever after.

The End

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Hi, I'm Craig, and I'm an Interaction Designer at the Department For Work and Pensions.

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