A press release recently went past us, concerning a new vending machine design from somewhere in Western Europe. It delivers a snack at about waist height, so the patron does not have to bend over to retrieve it.
Of course, a number of machines have been introduced in recent years that have this feature. What interested us about the publicity for this one was the assertion by the manufacturer that patrons find the need to bend over to pick up their purchase demeaning or insulting. We see people doing that all the time, for products on the lower display shelves in supermarkets and convenience stores, and it doesn’t seem to bother them. Why should a vending machine be any different?
That said, we do think there is much to be said for devoting some attention to the manner in which a product is delivered – and, for that matter, to the user interface in general.
Operators with long memories will recall several cigarette machines introduced when tobacco sales generated the lion’s share of vending revenue. These were designed with a stepped top – a shallow raised housing at the rear with a flat counter or shelf in front of it – and an elevator that traveled along the inside rear of the cabinet. A pack of cigarettes, and a book of matches, was picked up by the elevator, carried to the top of the machine and gently projected across the shelf, just as a store clerk would slide a pack across the counter.
A philosopher might ask whether anyone really gained from a design that offered modest novelty at the expense of added complexity. We don’t recall that question arising at the time; the machines were fairly popular in upscale locations, and we kept running into surviving examples in hotel lobbies for quite a long time.
As we’ve remarked before, a vending machine that allows the customer to watch something happen – the ejection of a pack of cigarettes, the robotic selection, lifting and delivery of a frozen snack – is a kind of kinetic art, offering a pleasure distinct from the satisfaction of obtaining the product. This has long been known to designers of jukeboxes and novelty bulk vending equipment, and it was a factor in the design of the first Snapple bottle vender. More than one operator has noted that people appear to enjoy watching a snack machine spiral kick a bag off the edge of the shelf.
At the same time, the trend in much modern vending design has been to get the machine itself out of the way, as much as possible, so the customer’s attention will be drawn to the product display. New lighting methods are being combined with muted, nonreflective finishes to make the machine serve, visually, as a frame for the merchandise. This certainly makes sense, too. Product suppliers devote a great deal of talent and effort to designing attractive packages, and a good vending machine design arguably is one that showcases those packages to best effect.
From one point of view, an energy-saving system that turns off the machine’s illumination when no one is around, and turns it on again when a prospective patron approaches, combines these two approaches. A darkened machine that suddenly lights up surely captures the attention of the passerby. Once illuminated, it can recede into the perceptual background and let the product take center stage.
The increasing modularity of electronically controlled vending machines might make it possible to imagine a vending machine that the operator could assemble in several ways, depending on the particular site and, perhaps, the clientele. There have been attractive, successful machines that consisted of a narrow vertical assembly housing the payment and selection systems that could be mounted on either side of the actual dispenser cabinet. There seems no insuperable obstacle to designing a machine with a front-traveling elevator – several current glassfront cold drink machines have these – that could convey the product to a delivery station on the right or the left of the cabinet. A reason to do these things is to enable the customer to stand in one place and select items from two machines, retrieving both selections with ease. A pair of machines able to deliver a combination purchase can be designed to offer both functionality and fun.
While there are sound arguments for design simplicity, we think modern technology also is creating opportunities to design machines that shamelessly promote themselves. And why not?