Credit Cards – The Standard Checkout

So began a discussion on Twitter that seemed to immediately resonate with several people. Responses varied, but one thing became clear quickly, no one likes them.

Okay that’s probably an oversimplification—there were  some positive  experiences we came across but those were  trumped by poor ones.

It’s funny, people don’t often think about the experiences where the interaction is simple and nicely designed. They remember the ones that are complex and confusing. Reminds me of a quote that I guess I made up because a google search turns up nothing:

“Great design gets out of the way.” -me

“If you could change anything about POS credit card terminals at store checkouts, what would it be?”


When it comes to credit card terminals at your local grocer, salon, coffee shop etc. etc:

  • Why do they sometimes require a signature?
  • Why isn’t mobile payment sweet?
  • Why are companies like Square and Paypal able to make better experiences affordable for small businesses?
  • What is the cost to update the machines?
  • What is the cost associated with updating the network?
  • What is the cost comparison of using touchscreen devices vs physical buttons?
  • Why are explicit options for debit or credit necessary?
  • Why aren’t we fully digital by now, no paper?


  • What are the specific UX principles involved?
  • How are other countries solving these problems?
  • Are there parallel success stories?
  • What could be done differently?

Why do they sometimes require a signature?

This is an old, old problem. Swiping your card and signing is actually a legal agreement. Read the terms on the printout you get sometimes, it clearly says you are agreeing to a legal contract to pay that money, bro!

Big banks aren’t likely to relinquish control anytime soon. This is part of the reason why things like PIN, Paypal, and Apple Pay exist in the first place. No one wants to sign on the dotted line!

No debit? No paypal? No whatever-pay-tech available? Bottom line: you gotta sign on it..

Why isn’t mobile payment sweet?

Well actually, it kinda is already. When “the stars align” the experience with mobile payments is seamless and smooth. Basically it goes like this:

  1. Get total from cashier
  2. Hold phone (or watch) over payment terminal (which you probably already have in your hand)
  3. Authenticate via finger, face, or PIN
  4. Leave with your malt liquor

Here’s what we need to do to align the stars:

Why are companies like Square and Paypal able to make better experiences affordable for small businesses?

This is a problem of scale. A smaller business can afford a cool, modern POS experience, because they can drop a few hundred bucks (or less) one time, every few years with hardly a blip on the ledger.

Huge chain businesses, however, are stuck a little bit. When they invest in a POS system/service/provider, they are deploying sometime upwards of 20 units at hundreds of locations. It’s a choice that has to be made carefully, and you have to get it right the first time if at all possible, otherwise Joe CEO might have to fire off a memo announcing lower profits this quarter, because 10,000 customers couldn’t check out the week of the bill rollout.


What is the cost to update the machines?

The cost will likely be directly proportional to business size. A big chain will have to stick to what they have rather than live on the cutting edge.

Are you a mom-and-pop donut shop? Peanuts, probably.

Are you WalMart™? Millions.

What is the cost associated with updating the network?

First, by “network” we probably mean the guts of our electronic money, ones and zeros flying back and forth over the airwaves, transmitting credits and deductions like so much Stranger Things-esque red lighting shooting out of the sky in the upside-down.

Again, we can’t put a dollar amount on this. Financial systems are old as dirt, and written in languages that are archaic labyrinths of spaghetti code. The network isn’t likely to change in favor of better checkout experiences.

Fortunately, the “better” checkout experience can usually talk to the old-as-dirt systems. If you need dollars and cents, think knowledgeable programmers, business analysts, QA testers, system admins, and the cost of their salaries and maternity/paternity leaves.

The alternative is off-the-shelf solutions and/or a savvy consulting team.

What is the cost comparison of using touchscreen devices vs physical buttons?

Bottom line: touchscreens are more expensive than keypads. Also, a lot of hardening has to go into a public, unmonitored (usually) touchscreen systems. You have to strike a balance between sensitivity and invincibility.

Think grandmas trying to sign their name on a touchscreen interface with their literal feather quill, a sharpie, or their storied ballpoint pen, a gift from their late husband Eustace, WWII veteran, expert bocce baller, the stuff of legends. The kind of pen that comes with refills, bought in bulk.

Think the eponymous screaming children, beating the terminal with baseball bats.

Why are explicit options for debit or credit necessary?

This is about fitting your system into a universal pocket. Some payment providers may expose this information about the account, which would allow providers to tell what type of card is being dipped or swiped, some may not.

The far easier choice is to always provide the option, rather than performing the logic necessary to lift the choice off the shoulders of the user.

Why aren’t we fully digital by now, no paper?

You can use applications that help you to keep track of your receipts digitally. It falls mostly on your own shoulders here to make this work for you. Applications like Mint can help you go paperless and truly get insights into your finances that you would otherwise have to manually enter into an excel spreadsheet like an animal. Mint and some modern banking companies, like Simple, offer similar features allowing you to see your purchases by category and see where your money is going. Mint allows for the linking of several accounts into one comprehensive view of all your incoming and outgoing scratch. Then you can simply never get a paper receipt again. You’re welcome.

No chip reader
The UX of POS devices is so bad, it can commonly be improved with masking tape and hand-written notes.

What are the specific UX principles involved?

Reduce Cognitive Load (Don’t Make Me Think)

Many of the responses we received revolved around consistency. This is really a cry of “stop making me think!”

Until the addition of “the chip”, mobile payments, and rewards programs the credit card experience was fairly consistent: Scan items, total, swipe, sign. There was no thinking required, unless you wanted to create a work of art as your signature. But for the reasons above, things have fractured and deteriorated. Now a checkout requires thought. Is it time to use my credit card? Swipe or insert? Is it done reading? When will it start yelling at me? AM I DONE?

Since unifying an experience between large and small companies who have already implemented half-measures is near impossible (one could argue that the transition to chip-readers was the moment to unify and improve) it is up to the individual business to reduce this load on the customer:

  • Allow scanning your card/mobile device at any time during the process
  • Reduce the amount of signatures required
  • Provide pleasant feedback when the user has completed the process or when further steps are required
  • After greeting the customer, ask them “how will you be paying today” and talk to them about how it works while scanning their items
  • Use this time to educate your customers about mobile payments
  • Make this happen

How are other countries solving these problems?

The way that China is solving this problem is incredibly interesting because it doesn’t involve the typical capitalism problem/solution. You can just imagine the executive discussion:

Executive 1: “I’ve got an idea.”

Executive 2: “I’m listening…”

Executive 1: “Lets create a problem for our users…”

Executive 2: “You have my attention.”

Executive 1: “Then we sell them a solution to the problem we just created.”

Executive 2: “…Brilliant.”

China has bypassed all of the credit/debit, chip card, NFC, credit card terminal shenanigans and is just using QR Codes.

I know I know… QR Codes ugh. But the solution in this instance is truly elegant. The barrier to entry is a printed QR Code that a customer can scan with a mobile app they are already familiar with. This has become so much the norm that even street performers and homeless people have next to them, not a hat or a box, but a printed QR code that you can use to give them money. New York Times had a great write up with a true dive into the interesting economics and culture around payments. You can read it here.

By far the sharpest dresser of the group, Rob is the closest thing we have to a teenager, but thats not saying much (He is 30). When he’s not designing apps, he's playing his guitar at the local coffee shop. He speaks a little French and Spanish and lives in New York but is from Cajun country.

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