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This post-COVID grocery checkout never lets two people touch the same spot

An unconventional UI keeps our interactions cleaner.

Even before the pandemic, grocery store touch screens were kind of gross. After grabbing unwashed produce and packs of raw meat, dozens of customers poked at the same checkout buttons. When was the last time they were cleaned? Who knows.

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But a new idea out of the London-based design studio Special Projects fixes the hygiene heebie-jeebies that come with grocery store touchscreens. Called Moving Buttons, it intelligently moves the onscreen buttons for each customer, ensuring that two people never touch the same spot. The idea is a concept rather than a realized product, illustrated through simulated videos rather than an actual coded interface.

[Image: courtesy Special Projects]
Granted, we now know that, while the SARS-CoV-2 virus can live on some surfaces for days, touching infected surfaces isn’t what’s driving the pandemic—and might not matter much at all. So self-sterilizing copper and pocket UV lights, while promising for the general spread of germs, won’t stop COVID-19. That said, the pandemic does seem to have awoken our inner Mr. Cleans, bringing to light the significance of curbing the spread of disease wherever possible.

And Moving Buttons feels like the perfect shared interface for a cleaner future. Its key insight is that it moves a button around the screen as users search for items or pay for orders. This approach is highly unconventional in interface design, to say the least.

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[Image: courtesy Special Projects]
“An interface like this goes against many accessibility rules as people tend to feel more comfortable using familiar interfaces, especially those who find it challenging to interact with them in the first place,” admits Adrian Westaway, principal at Special Projects. “We’ve maximized accessibility by anchoring the controls to the pay button and massively decluttering the screen. The idea is that as long as you can locate the pay button, you should be able to find the rest of the commands needed.”

[Image: courtesy Special Projects]
The pay button, rendered in a noticeable fluorescent green, is self explanatory. Its accompanying search button pulls up a very thin horizontal menu, which lets you quickly tap your way from a broad topic like “bakery” to a specific item like “croissant.” Once you find the item you want, you tap its image. That image then becomes a new button to select the quantity, rendered on the exact same spot. This small touch (no pun intended) of UI is meant to keep you tapping as few parts of the screen as possible.

[Image: courtesy Special Projects]
Then, after the system recognizes that all of its usable real estate has been touched by various customers, it alerts a nearby clerk to sterilize it. This approach keeps the use of cleaners to a bare minimum. And it offers a showcase for one last, brilliant bit of interface: As a clerk wipes down the screen, it goes from black to white, ensuring they don’t miss a spot.

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[Image: courtesy Special Projects]
So how many people could share the screen between cleanings? The theoretical maximum is 49, assuming that people only touch the screen to pay. But that drops to 11 if everyone selects items like produce. Westaway estimates that a reliable average lands at about 35 people. But he also points out that, if you were to build in predictive AI into the interface—such as knowing that people are more likely to buy bananas in the morning—the screen could surface these items at the right time of day. Such UI guesses could maximize its use between cleaning even further.

While the work is purely speculative, Westaway says it wouldn’t be all that complex to prototype if any company was interested. That said, the design work is something Special Projects wanted to put out there as a way of paying back during COVID times.

“Our goal is to just get the idea out in front of as many people as possible in the hope that it might be of use to some people and industries,” says Westaway.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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