Lately, after coming home from the grocery store, I’ve been noticing that even though I intend to buy plain Greek yogurt, I have bought coconut flavored. After this happened for the second time, I knew I had to go back and figure out how, and why, I had made this mistake on more than one occasion. Each time the error had occurred, I had reached into the yogurt shelf, looking right at the plain Greek yogurt, and had grabbed what I thought was the item I wanted. Little did I know that while I was the victim of a grocery store snafu, I was also witnessing human factors in action.
I went back to the grocery store and quickly identified what the problem was. But I do not want to give it away, so let’s see if I can lead you to the same conclusion I reached.
Here’s a picture of the yogurt section at the grocery store. It is exactly what you would see while perusing the aisle.
At first glance, there does not appear to be any issues here. The different yogurts are well organized and it is easy to identify yogurts from one another. But, if one gets a bit closer, it becomes a bit more clear what the problem is.
The plain yogurt, with a light blue label, is on the left in this picture. On the right, with a very similar label, is the coconut yogurt. Placing these two, nearly-identically labeled yogurts is a confusing design flaw in the layout of the yogurt display. In my opinion, this design flaw is a great example of human error.
Author Don Norman writes that one of the major causes of error is time pressure. (Norman, 2013) At the grocery store, shoppers are stressed an in a rush. It is likely that others, like myself, are not interested in spending a lot of time finding the yogurt they want. What they want, instead, is to be able to quickly identify the product they are looking for and put it in their carts. I am imagining a thought process much like mine was “Plain yogurt..light blue label… three yogurts with a light blue label.” People are not expecting two similarly labeled, yet different, products to be right next to each other and thus, when this happens, it leads to confusion.
The error of purchasing the wrong yogurt is my fault, as I could have been more attentive when shopping. But Don Norman writes that it is important to never assume the first cause of error you think of is the root cause of the problem. This system of inquiry is called the “Five Why’s,” as it makes one think deeper about what causes error (Norman, 2013). Thinking more about this, I believe that it is the design of the yogurt section that is the root cause of the error of purchasing the wrong yogurt, rather than simply me being a distracted shopper.
Norman, Don. 2013. The Design of Everyday Things. New York, NY: Basic Books. pp 164-65