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DHL Packstation Design FAIL

555 words

DHL started deploying automated parcel offices Packstation a few years ago. They can be used in two ways: Like a P.O. Box for receiving parcels which sends you a message when a parcel arrives and at which you can pick your parcel up at the time convenient for you rather than the post office’s opening times. And as a DHL office for shipping parcels as well. You can walk up with your parcel, enter the address, pay the postage, get a little sticker and put your parcel into a little compartment that opens.

I like the idea. Post office workers seem to hate it as they see their jobs vanishing there. And, given the ‘Beamtenmikado’ low speed and extreme grumpiness of the people in Göttingen’s main post office, I can’t wait to see them go: their colleagues in the downtown post office or on the delivery vans simply do a much better job while being friendly. But I digress.

I didn’t really get to use the Packstation so far as I rarely send parcels and our neighbour tends to accept the stuff arriving at home which is much more convenient than having to go and pick it up. When having to send a parcel this week, I wanted to play with the Packstation – guessing that the version 1.0 problems should be solved after a few years in use.

DHL Packstation at the main post office in Göttingen

Unfortunately this wasn’t the case. My single, dead-simple interaction with the machine, exhibited a number of downright design flaws. The first being the weather: It was a sunny day and the touch screen on the Packstation is shiny. Without any light protection around it, I mainly saw myself on the screen and had to hold up my parcel to cast a shadow, so I could try and read the small text on the screen.

The software in the machine is quite clumsy. Buttons are small-ish. Text is small-ish. The interaction speed is glacial. Each of these points makes the Packstation harder to use.

In addition to that, the software seems to have been created by brain-dead monkeys. While it does manage to automatically fill the sender information if you have a card for the Packstation and insert it, it wasn’t even able to automatically fill in the city name of the destination after I had entered the post code. That just seems insanely incompetent.

After winning that fight against the software the machine duly printed the sticker with the addresses and magic barcode which I could put on my parcel and then scan with the built-in barcode scanner. Sure, there needs to be a scanner in case people print the stickers out at home or so. But if the machine printed it a moment ago, why make me scan it, instead of offering a button to ‘post this item’? Particularly if the scanner is so poorly adjusted that it took ages of waving the parcel – luckily mine was a light one – around before it was accepted. The total lack of feedback given by the machine, along with its slowness didn’t help either.

None of this left a good impression. I like the idea as it simplifies sending and receiving parcels. But the solution DHL have right now seems a bit half-assed and severely lacking in both polish and basic respect for the user.

July 17, 2010, 10:28

Tagged as design, dhl, packstation.


Comment by Carl: User icon

American post office now have vending machines that let you weigh your package, put in your credit card, print out a label/stamp, and put it in the receptacle to be delivered later. It’s not a great UI, but it works. Also, it’s in the antechamber of the post office with the PO Boxes so it’s out of the sun but still unlocked after the post office closes.

I don’t know a ton about the German labor situation, but my understanding is that you guys still suffer pretty badly from grocery stores being closed when people get off work and nothing being open on Sundays. In America the trend is for everything to move to being open 24/7 since everyone has to work during the day anyway and we have no real labor protections.

July 17, 2010, 12:58

Comment by ssp: User icon


I don’t know a ton about the German labor situation, but my understanding is that you guys still suffer pretty badly from grocery stores being closed when people get off work and nothing being open on Sundays.

Most grocery stores are open until 8 or 10 these days, so it’s not a big deal. I think they could stay open longer if they wanted to but most of them decided against it as it’s not profitable. One of the supermarkets I shop at used to be open until midnight, but they went back to closing at 10 again after a while. At least for me that’s sufficient.

Shops being open on Sundays could be convenient I guess. Although I wonder whether it may make things more stressful as currently you’re forced to get everything with shops sorted out on Saturday and then have more time on Sunday…

July 17, 2010, 13:09

Comment by Stefan: User icon

A great example for machines, where I wonder If they have received any usability testing whatsoever. I mean we’re all kind of spoiled by Apple but I guess it doesn’t have to be this bad. I think it’s generally a really bad idea to let software developers in large corporations be soley responsible for the interface design because most average developers tend to not have the slightest notion of good design or usability. I think it all boils down the classic cliché that the the average nerd’s sense of aesthetics at the best covers data structures, algorithms and protocol design but at everything remotely human-related they drastically fail, partly because of their incompetence and partly because of their ignorance.

July 21, 2010, 7:28

Comment by dan: User icon

I agree with Stefan (hi!) but might add.. I think that one of the largest problems is that many software developers simply seem to have a higher tolerance for crappy UIs. I know several who simply can’t understand why others think a UI is confusing and difficult.

(I imagine) that the dev has spent months in his/her darkened cavern staring at the POS UI for so long that they simply cannot imagine another way to do it. He/she are undoubtedly quite smart and possibly through spending so much time in their cavern, have little understanding of other more stupid peoples needs.

That, or maybe these corporations simply wish to cause Sven much discomfort so they can get a bit of free advertising. Maybe they should be using Comic Sans too ;-)

July 21, 2010, 11:20

Comment by ssp: User icon

@Stefan and dan:
Sure, lack of testing – or even awareness that testing is necessary – may be the reason for failure here. But still, if one-man ‘indie’ software shops can have that awareness and skill, then a huge corporation like DHL should at least be able to buy it, especially in a project like this which is meantto drive people to use the Packstation (and thus save DHL staff and cash).

Of course I also agree with dan’s conspiracy theory…

July 21, 2010, 17:47

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