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Letter from Tarak Modi
Received October 21, 2002

Hi Dan,

It's been a long time. Hope you are well. I just read your interesting new essay and would like to share a similar experience I had.

It was a little over five years ago. I had joined a company that is a leading provider of point-of-sale (POS) equipment for convenience stores (such as those with gas stations and referred to as C-stores in the POS lingo). The POS had a touchscreen monitor with nice, large icons aimed at reducing the training time for new employees, since turnover in C-stores is extremely high (even when the clerks are not shot!). Anyway, we were very proud of the product and were more than a little annoyed when our management decided to send each one of us (the developers) to a C-store to work as a clerk for one whole day (free to the store of course)!

Finally, the day I've been dreading arrives. Little did I realize that I was about to learn a valuable lesson in software usability. Monday morning, I wake up bright and early, and head out to the C-store that was eagerly awaiting my arrival. I needed to get their early to cope with the morning ruch hour. I took my place at the POS and merrily started greeting and ringing up customers. The first few customers came and left. This was easy, I thought to myself looking proudly at the POS, thinking about the software that I had helped develop. More customers come in. For those of you not familiar with C-stores, they could care less about the gasoline they sell. No, they make their money on selling beer and cigarrettes. Before I realized it, there was a huge line of customers in front of me, while I tried feverishly to ring up each customer as fast as I could. Prettey soon, I was geting yelled at, cursed at, and a lot worse.

What happened? Well, as it turns out, all the high margin products (and the ones that custers buy a lot of) such as beer and cigarrettes were many screens deep. So the clerk would have to touch the screen approximately 5-6 times for each item that needed to be rung up. If we (the software people) had done any amount of user analysis, we would have put these products right on the first screen! And guess what, they were on the first screen in our next release!!

Once again, thanks for another great essay. Keep 'em coming...

Best,
Tarak