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Radio Frequency Identification: How User Expertise Can Make a New Technology Welcome

User-experience professionals can play a role in the success of new technologies by ensuring that the technology facilitates, rather than inhibits, personal and business activities. Clearly, our user-interface design skills can help ensure ease of use, but we must also apply our knowledge of human psychology, anthropology, and ethnography to direct a new technology toward providing the most benefits.

Our challenge as user-experience professionals is to think “outside the box”—well beyond our usual tasks such as designing web interfaces or screen flows. We must combine those talents with our broader knowledge of how individuals and commercial enterprises interact, what their objectives and beliefs are, and how the technology can best support those objectives while minimizing disruptions that often accompany new ways of doing business.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology presents one such opportunity and is a good example of how we can influence the adoption of new technology. As with other technologies that have moved from specialized to mainstream use (video recorders, computers, and global positioning systems are examples), RFID’s success will depend as much on the user experience as on technical factors.

What is RFID?

RFID hardware is a tiny chip plus antenna that can be embedded in, or attached to, a label, container, device, or even a living object! An RFID reader wirelessly queries the information on the chip. RFID performs the functions of bar codes and magnetic stripes (like the ones on the backs of credit cards), and their readers, but also goes beyond them in several ways:

  • Information on an RFID tag can be sent wirelessly to a tag reader without line-of-sight scanning (as needed for bar codes) or insertion into a card reader (as needed for magnetic stripes).
  • RFID readers can collect information from multiple tags next to each other and do so nearly simultaneously.
  • Each RFID tag has a unique code that allows every tagged object to be identified individually.

Uses of RFID

Because of the tag’s small size, RFID is an obvious choice for ubiquitous computing. One of the most ambitious examples is New Songdo City, South Korea, which is incorporating RFID into its basic infrastructure. For example, RFID technology will automatically credit people when they recycle bottles. A single smart card can be used to pay for movies, borrow a free public bicycle, and pay a parking meter.

Some of the most widespread implementations are in retail transportation. Examples include:

  • Small electronic devices mounted on windshields or bumpers that automatically pay tolls as the vehicles pass through tollbooths.
  • The Exxon Mobil Speedpass, a key fob that lets its owner pay for gas and other items by holding it up to a reader.
  • Key fobs that automatically unlock doors as the driver approaches the car. The driver doesn’t have to click a button or even remove the fob from a pocket or purse.

Studies of more novel RFID applications are underway. For example, Intel-supported research at the University of Washington uses RFID tags on household objects to help caregivers monitor elderly individuals’ daily activities. This electronic monitoring lets the caregivers focus on quality of care rather than on watching the elders every minute, and it gives the elders more privacy. The University of Washington is also studying how these tags might be used to help cognitively impaired elders complete common household tasks. For example, when an individual is cooking but seems to be having difficulty, the RFID system can suggest the next step.

Why is Adoption Resisted?

The biggest source of resistance to a new technology is often fear. Fear sometimes has a legitimate basis, but it may also result from misunderstandings of the technology. Either way, user-experience professionals can identify potential user fears well in advance of the technology’s introduction, help design the technology to mitigate those fears, and work with the technology’s suppliers and purchasers on educational plans to dispel unfounded fears. Let’s look at some examples of how user-experience professionals can help address resistance to adoption in retail stores.

Stores and the RFID User Experience

RFID offers significant advantages over bar codes. Stores, which rely on bar codes for everything from scanning incoming merchandise at the receiving door to self-checkout, are major adopters of RFID technology. For retail stores, NCR designs, evaluates, and produces many technology products and services such as self-checkouts, point-of-sale terminals, self-service gift registries, and radio-controlled electronic shelf labels, and has been particularly interested in potential interactions between RFID technology and the people and organizations using it. In fact, much of the impetus for ultra high frequency (UHF) RFID development is the result of mandates from Wal-Mart, Target, and other major retailers who ran trials of RFID with encouraging results.

The following sections illustrate the kinds of opportunities that are found during a needs assessment and analysis of the shopping experience, the types of solutions that a user-experience expert could help design, the benefits of the solutions, potential points of resistance to the solution, and the role of the user-experience professional in addressing those points of resistance.

photo of security scanner
An RFID gate antenna and a high-frequency RFID reader/writer that can be connected to it.

Stop Inspecting Merchandise Shoppers Carry into the Store

Obstacle: Stores need to check merchandise carried by shoppers into the store so the store will not charge the customer for things that were already purchased.

Solution: Tag merchandise sold in the store so that at checkout, those RFID tags indicate that the merchandise has not yet been paid for. Shoppers would thus be charged only for new items when leaving the store and they would no longer need to check previously purchased merchandise at the door as they come in. When an item is paid for, its associated information in the database would automatically be changed to a “purchased” state or totally removed from the database and no longer tracked or read.


  • Improved shopper convenience
  • Avoids perception of mistrust when shopper begins store visit
  • Increased shopper privacy, because a store employee no longer needs to check what the shopper is bringing into the store and place some kind of “checked” sticker on it.
  • Allows the store to redeploy staff from checking shoppers’ merchandise to more productive tasks like stocking merchandise, ringing up sales, etc.

Customer concerns:

  • Shoppers worry that they will be charged again for previously pur-chased items with RFID tags that they bring into the store.
  • They fear having their RFID-tagged belongings monitored.

Solution to customer concerns:

  • Put up signs in the store before and after the RFID rollout assuring shoppers that the “smart” tag readers can distinguish unpaid items from paid ones, regardless of where they were purchased.
  • Make it a store policy that staff will take the shopper’s word that the item was purchased before entering the store, even when the RFID system suggests otherwise. (The store must weigh the risk of dishonesty versus the benefits of instilling shopper trust.)
  • By monitoring only items that have not yet been purchased, the RFID system increases privacy since there is no need to visually inspect the shoppers’ bags.

Give Shoppers Unfettered Access to Expensive Merchandise

Obstacle: Expensive or theft-prone items are kept in locked cabinets oron locked cables, so that customers need to seek store personnel to show them the item.

Solution: RFID tags allow merchandise movement to be tracked throughout the store without gathering information about the person who is handling the merchandise. Consequently, even expensive items can be placed on shelves or racks for shoppers to handle and inspect. The tags simultaneously safeguard the store’s merchandise and the shopper’s privacy.


  • The shopping experience is better because shoppers can easily access items for examination and purchase.
  • It eliminates the pressure to make a quick decision while a store clerk hovers nearby to lock the item up again.
  • Privacy is increased because the shopper does not have to ask for employee assistance to access the item.
  • The store has a better revenue flow because expensive items are no longer locked away.
  • Store labor is used more efficiently—employees no longer have to interrupt their tasks to unlock expensive merchandise and monitor the shoppers while they inspect it.

Improve Checkout Speed

Obstacle:  Long or slow lines at store checkouts.

Solution: If items are individually tagged, they can be nearly simultaneously identified by an RFID reader and “rung up” at the checkout without the need to remove them from the shopping cart.


  • Faster checkout.
  • Increased privacy because store employees do not need to handle the merchandise and the shopper does not need to remove the items from the cart to scan them. The shopper can even bury the things that they don’t want other shoppers to see; RFID can still identify and tally all contents of the cart since it doesn’t require line-of-sight reading.
  • It reduces the amount of cashier time needed to help shoppers check out.
  • It reduces lost revenue associated with failure to scan missed items at the bottom of the cart.
  • It reduces sweetheart deals in which the cashier gives friends unauthorized discounts by not scanning all items in the cart or by scanning different items than those that the shopper is actually taking out of the store. The RFID readers detect what is actually in the cart and nothing else.

Potential area of resistance: Shoppers fear that merchandise will be misread and that they will not be properly charged.

Possible way to address resistance: Use lessons learned from the introductionof bar codes during the 1970s and 1980s. Stores guaranteed that the charges would be correct or that the shoppers’ purchases would be free. Shoppers only needed to show their sales receipt and what they had purchased to a store representative to address incorrect charges. In reality, incorrect charges seldom occurred, but if the customer knew that the store guaranteed its accuracy, their fears were alleviated and they could focus on the benefits of faster checkout with the bar codes.

Improve the Experience by Getting Rid of the Interface

The preceding examples illustrate an important aspect of user-expe-rience design offered by RFID technology—interaction with a user interface is reduced or eliminated rather than improved. RFID eliminates the interface between the shopper and the store employee when the shopper carries merchandise into the store. Likewise, it allows access to store merchandise without employee assistance. Finally, the check-out experience is improved because the shopper does not have to wait for the items to show up one at a time and listen for successive confirmation beeps as individual items are scanned. Instead, he or she receives a summary of the items bought on the checkout screen and receipt. Another example of eliminating the user interface is the previously mentioned toll-charging system for cars equipped with RFID-embedded toll passes.

Guard Against Merchandise Expiration

Obstacle: Inadvertent purchase of expired, or soon to expire, grocery items.

Solution: RFID technology, when combined with the Electronic ProductCodeTM (EPC), allows a specific instance of a product to be stored with its expiration date in a database or on the tag. Readers on store shelves can regularly check for items about to expire and notify store personnel to remove items approaching their expiration dates so that they can be moved to the front of the shelf or put into clearance bins to sell before expiration. The readers can also report the items’ specific locations in the store and, since some items can appear in multiple store locations, RFID reduces the search time.

Usability professionals also design the user interfaces for back office applications that monitor expiration dates and alert employees about expiring items. They also design the user interfaces of the handheld RFID readers that employees use to find about-to-expire items on the shelves.


  • Improved shopper satisfaction since they don’t inadvertently buy expired, or soon-to-expire, items.
  • Reduced loss to the store since it doesn’t have to dispose of as many expired items.
  • Reduced labor costs by using RFID to quickly locate items nearing expiration.

Restocking is Faster and More Thorough

Obstacle: Re-stocking merchandise can be time-consuming and particularly difficult when the same type of item (for example, candy) is stocked in more than one location (the candy aisle and checkout).

Solution: RFID readers can be installed on the shelves in the stores tomonitor when items are removed from those shelves. Software from NCR and other companies can signal the stockroom when it’s time to restock and, via a display in the stockroom or on a personal digital assistant, how many items are needed and the precise location, by aisle and shelf, where they should be placed.


  • Merchandise is always on the shelves.
  • Stocking times for stores is reduced.
  • Employees don’t have to worry about forgetting to restock secondary display areas.

Overcoming New Technology Adoption Pain Points

The transition from other forms of identification to RFID can be a challenge to the users of this technology. However, it is also an area in which user-experience experts can contribute significantly. User-experience consultants can help reduce the challenge by, for example, suggesting packaging that makes the presence of an RFID tag more obvious, developing training on which items no longer require bar code scanning, and suggesting technology such as dual-mode scanners that work with both bar codes and RFID tags.

Smart retailers ask user-experience experts and technical communicators to help develop educational campaigns about RFID technology for managers, employees, and shoppers. User-experience experts can help stores decide on the appropriate channels—store signs and mass-media advertisements for customers, and store meetings and videos in the break rooms for store employees—to convey this information to various target audiences. They may also assist in designing the content and its delivery (for example, by storyboarding the videos) by applying their knowledge of task analysis and instructional-systems development.

Planning Organizational Change around RFID

As RFID increases the efficiency of some tasks, labor requirements for those tasks are reduced. However, RFID can also require more, and sometimes better-paid, labor for other tasks. For instance, more systems-support personnel may be needed to maintain this new technology. Likewise, staff who are freed up from one task (checkout) may be redeployed to other tasks to increase service sales (assisting customers on the sales floor or improving merchandise presentation on the shelves).

By working with management to match the knowledge and skills of people freed from one set of tasks to tasks associated with the new technology, user-experience experts can help educate employees about the transition plans, as well as the technology. This will reduce disruption of the stores’ most important assets, their people. It may also create excitement among employees about what lies ahead.

Not Just for RFID

While this article has focused the value of user-experience expertise for RFID applications, the basic approach can be extended to many technologies and contexts. User-experience professionals can facilitate the introduction of a new technology by:

  1. Analyzing tasks to find areas where a new technology can be beneficial.
  2. Designing usable, attractive human-technology interfaces when needed or desirable, or eliminating interfaces altogether when possible.
  3. Analyzing the individual human and often neglected organizational impacts of the technology; in other words, considering emotional responses and misunderstandings about the technology in addition to its functions and modes of operation.
  4. Developing solutions and training that head off disruption and capitalize on the opportunities offered by the technology.


How RFID Works

An RFID system consists of tags, readers, and a database.

Tags emit radio signals providing information about the object with which the tag is associated.  The tag hardware consists of a:

  • Chip:  the size of a pinhead or smaller, that stores a code uniquely identifying the object to which the tag is attached (much like a license plate uniquely identifies a motor vehicle).
  • Antenna: which is typically flat but comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.  Approximately 0.3 inches x 4 inches (or 8 mm x 100 mm) are common dimensions, but there are many others, including much smaller ones.

Readers generate and capture the signal from the tag.

The database stores the unique RFID tag code and associates it with a record containing such properties as manufacturer, date of manufacture, expiration date, owner name and billing address, purchase date, and location of the object.  Some information can change as the conditions of the object change – for example, a new owner, a new location for the object, and so on.

What is on the chip memory and how it gets there varies with the type of chip.  Memory contents can range from just an ID to additional information about the tagged product (date or manufacture, expiration date, temperatures encountered by the object, etc.)  The contents of some chips are set at the factory, while others allow content to be added or updated by the RFID reader one or more times, EPCglobal Inc)provides industry standards for formatting the Electronic Product Code (EPC) on the chip to uniquely identify the object.  It is a kind of “license plate” for the object that contains the version of EPC code being used, who manufactured the object, what the object is, and then this specific object’s unique identifier.

RFID tag with chip
Figure 1. RFID tag with chip (black square) at center surrounded by antenna (dark gray, 8 x 96 mm) inlaid in label (light grey area with text, 27 x 102 mm)

photo of labels with RFID tags
Figure 2. RFID tag inlaid in label.

photo of information layout of an RFID chip
Figure 3. Information layout of a 96-bit RFID chip.