I recently visited a Nordstrom store to buy a couple of shirts. This retailer is generally known for excellent customer service, but it hasn’t been regarded as a vanguard of technology. In the past, I’ve been frustrated by what seemed like an ancient point of sale (POS) system that took ages to enter any non-standard transaction. On this visit, however, the clerk pulled and iPod out of his pocket that was equipped with an aftermarket barcode and credit card reader. While this is nothing new at the Apple store or the thousands of businesses using tablets as their cash registers, it was interesting to see a more conventional mainstream retailer employing what amounts to a tiny tablet.

Solving problems

When it came time to pay for my purchase, the process was fairly familiar to anyone who’s shopped at a tablet-equipped store. The clerk swipes your card, you awkwardly sign the screen with a finger, and then you’re asked if you want a printed or emailed receipt. I tend to opt for the former, since my email address is a bit long, and in a small store, it’s easy to print a receipt to a centrally-located printer.

At Nordstrom, I expected the clerk to walk to a centralized printer, but instead, he walked to a nearby receipt printer, discretely positioned on a pedestal out of the way. Looking around, I noticed quite a few of these pedestals, apparently allowing the clerk to only walk a few paces from anywhere in the store to produce a receipt. I assumed he’d select a printer on the device from a long list, but he merely scanned a barcode on the printer and out came the receipt.

While this is not particularly complex technology, it struck me as a novel way to solve the problem of selecting a printer, a task usually fraught with complex device names that are meaningless to anyone outside IT. As mobile devices come equipped with a growing number of sensors, it becomes easier to build human-oriented interfaces to problems like this, where creativity accomplishes more than complex technology.

The receipt looked exactly like every other Nordstrom receipt I’ve received. Much to the chagrin of my wife, I carefully compared it to an older receipt. This seems to indicate a painstaking effort to duplicate the existing document, or perhaps the tablet acts merely as a front end to their existing infrastructure rather than attempting to duplicate business logic on the mobile device.

Learning from retail

Your company may not be in the retail business, but this particular example has a few interesting lessons for any company considering their own tablet deployment. First, Nordstrom has selected what amounts to commodity hardware vs. an expensive specialized device. While optimized hardware has its time and place, it would be simple to stock a half dozen pre-provisioned replacement devices in each store, likely at a lower cost than sending in a technician if a device breaks.

Additionally, the simplified UI of most tablet devices may already be familiar to a large portion of your user base. Training on complex, customized systems can be expensive to create, execute, and support in the long run, but an interface that follows the conventions of modern phones and tablets will speed up the deployment of a new enterprise application.

Finally, I was very impressed by Nordstrom’s novel use of barcoding to select a receipt printer. Whether you’re deploying tablets or not, relatively basic technologies may be able to streamline a common usability challenge — in this case, co-opting the familiar barcode scanning task to easily identify the right printer for receipts. In IT, we tend to focus so narrowly on technical challenges that we occasionally miss opportunities like this to simplify user experience.

Nordstrom is certainly not the first retailer to deploy tablets, but it’s also not the usual technology company one associates with this type of deployment. Tablet devices and a bit of creativity present the opportunity to deploy flexible, highly mobile applications with a familiar user interface and commodity hardware. Whether you’re selling clothing or deploying oilfield workers, tablets are increasingly worth a look.