Lindsay Fahmi has been part of Zebra’s Enterprise Mobile Computing Division (EMC) for about a decade now, having spent time in different roles across hardware, software, and most recently managing the Enterprise Mobile Computing data capture portfolio, such as barcode scanning solutions for essential, front-line workers. This mix of experience has allowed her to see how all parts of a mobile computing solution can either make a front-line worker’s job easier or make it harder. That’s why she was pleased to see U.S. Ergonomics conduct an independent third-party study on the ergonomic considerations of barcode scanning in business environments.
She knows you can’t just pick a device for front-line workers because it has “the right scanning software.” Software alone doesn’t facilitate a simple – or comfortable – “point-and-scan” experience when you’re scanning hundreds or thousands of barcodes a day. You have to think about the entire system – how the device’s design and button position supports people’s natural tendencies. Neither hardware nor software can solve anything alone. They must work in perfect harmony to be considered a true “solution.”
That’s why she recently sat down with our team as well as her colleagues Chandra Nair, Human Factors Engineering Fellow, and Andrew Cornell, Senior Product Manager for Scan Engines, to review the US Ergo study findings from an objective perspective. She wanted to help product designers and solution engineers understand why “postural demand” and “muscle work” matter to you and your workforce. She also wanted decision-makers and technology buyers for front-line workers to understand why these two factors must always be considered when choosing mobile devices for business applications that involve frequent barcode scanning.
Your Edge Blog Team: When you decided to commission this study, what were you hoping to learn? What were your hypotheses?
Lindsay: Camera technology, especially in mobile devices, has improved tremendously over the years. From post processing to sensor technologies, the images we take on our phones today are truly works of art. But most consumer-grade device cameras, though technically capable of scanning barcodes (most commonly QR codes), were primarily designed to take pictures or videos. The barcode scanning feature is just a bonus that is commonly enabled through a third party that has no control over the design/implementation of the device, nor lower-level access to the imaging sensors to optimize barcode scanning. For that reason, these cameras haven’t been built for rapid, repetitive, or long-range barcode scanning.
If a front-line worker must use the camera on their consumer device to scan barcodes, they’ll have to use both hands: one to hold the device, the other to hit the on-screen scan button on their application to start the scan session. Then they’ll need to get up close to the item, hold the device up so they can ensure the barcode is within view on their screen, and hope the lighting is just right as they wait for their camera to focus and capture the barcode. That means they may have to climb a ladder, bend over, or take extra time “setting the stage” to get the perfect shot. They may even have to put down the items they need to scan so they can hold the device with both hands. When you think about it, it’s quite an ordeal just to scan one barcode. Imagine having to repeat that over and over again, trying to quickly pick an order, or process a return. It's awkward and inefficient in so many ways.
So, we were just trying to figure out how to demonstrate these differences between consumer smartphones and enterprise mobile devices in a way the business decision-makers would understand. We wanted to give some objective credibility to these performance differences and show how much device ergonomics also factor into the scanning experience. This study was not just meant to compare an enterprise-grade Zebra scan engine against a Samsung X-Cover Pro Camera. We also wanted to test different enterprise-grade device designs by comparing the Zebra TC52ax and its built-in scan engine against the Zebra EC55, which uses a camera to scan.
Your Edge Blog Team: Were you confident the US Ergo study was going to give you the data you needed to make your case to customers and convince them that the differences are significant enough to warrant a look at their device buying strategy?
Lindsay: I’ll admit, it was a little risky commissioning this study. While we were all fairly confident in our hypotheses, we didn’t know what US Ergo was going to find. And because of how the organization conducts its testing and studies, we had no sway on the outcome. The US Ergo team was going to give us the facts, whether we liked them or not. If the product testers and objective metrics had showed that consumer mobile devices offered a better scanning experience, there was nothing we would have been able to do but accept the results and use them as an opportunity to reassess and improve our entire product design.
Needless to say, we were very pleased to see our beliefs were spot on.
The majority of users (79.2%) ranked the Zebra TC52ax – with the integrated scan engine, DataWedge, and a physical button – first across all performance categories. And remember, it was also compared to a Zebra EC55, which scanned via the integrated camera on the back of the device, as well as two consumer-grade devices: the Samsung XCover Pro and the Apple iPhone SE, both of which used a built-in rear camera for scanning and ran an application developed using a Scandit barcode scanning software development kit (SDK). These findings have reinforced that enterprise mobile computers are the best option for front-line workers who must constantly scan barcodes to get their jobs done.
Your Edge Blog Team: What specifically makes the enterprise mobile computer superior to a consumer smartphone for scanning applications?
Lindsay: A lot of people think it has to do with how the software, barcode decoders and scan engine found in enterprise mobile computers compare to the camera-based decoder and third-party scanning solution common with consumer devices. And a big part of it does, for sure. But what may equally play a role, and is also often overlooked, is the design of the device itself – the ergonomics of the total solution. Human Factors and User Experience Design is an integral part of our product development team. We have dedicated teams that spend their days studying all types of different workflows and interactions. As evident in the design of our mobile computing products, what they have realized is that scanning barcodes is a not just a bonus. It’s a primary function.
Chandra: Lindsay’s right. Consumer-grade smartphones are not designed for barcode scanning. They’re designed for picture taking. Everything from the illumination system to the location of the triggers is very different, and these differences matter when you consider the volume and speed of barcode scans that must occur on the front lines of business. That’s why, even when we designed the EC55 in a camera-only scanning configuration, we were very thoughtful about all aspects of the scanning solution, from the camera sensor selection and software to the device ergonomics, including the dual physical side trigger buttons.
Your Edge Blog Team: Knowing that even some enterprise mobile computers use integrated cameras to scan, are there really any major differences between this category of devices and consumer smartphones from a scanning perspective?
Lindsay: Smartphones rely on the rear camera system to capture images, which are then passed to third-party software to decode the barcode data. Whereas enterprise mobile computers are purpose-built devices in which every barcode scanning component is designed as part of an integrated system, regardless of whether they use a camera or scan engine to capture barcodes. Each element is designed to work in complete harmony with the others for enterprise workflows. This includes the image processor, decoder and trigger buttons.
Additionally, the camera sensors that Zebra selects for its enterprise devices are geared toward data capture, and as such must be able to account for a large number of auto-focus lifecycles. The ones found in smartphones are meant to capture the best pictures possible as fast as possible, but that doesn’t mean they can capture barcode data with the same level of quality or speed.
Your Edge Blog Team: Why don’t smartphone cameras read barcodes as fast as the scanners integrated into enterprise devices? What’s so different about the technologies?
Andrew: High-resolution color camera sensors – those that are 5MP+ – are designed to generate very large color images, which take a longer time to transmit and decode. But multi-megapixel images are not necessary for fast barcode scanning. Scan engines, which are typically less than 1.5 MP, provide enough resolution for barcode scanning while prioritizing speed.
Plus, as Lindsay mentioned, commercial camera focusing/lens designs are optimized for picture taking, not barcode scanning. Which means they aren’t designed for the highly repetitive nature of barcode scanning. For example, a consumer smartphone or tablet camera is optimized for taking nice quality images – and a user who can wait for the camera to focus. Most scan engines integrated into enterprise-grade devices eliminate such a delay and allow for snappy autofocus and barcode data capture.
Your Edge Blog Team: How do the two devices compare in bright light? Is one easier to aim than the other?
Andrew: The consumer smartphone display may not be easily viewable in certain light, such as under direct sunlight or even when there’s a glare from indoor lights. In addition, commercial camera illumination systems are typically not designed for the high frequency demands of barcode scanning, so that decreases their reliability and longevity. They are also not optimized for the illumination timing requirements for scanning barcodes, especially from a variety of surfaces. On the flip side, scan engines deliver various illumination “sequences” to increase the likelihood of capturing a decodable image across various lighting environments, regardless of whether the barcode is printed on paper, on a shiny shelf-tag, behind shrink-wrap, or displayed on a device screen.
Lindsay: Plus, with Zebra enterprise mobile computers, workers can utilize an aimer to capture barcodes. The aimer allows them to easily point the projected, visible pattern (crosshair or dot) on the barcode without having to rely on their device’s screen, use two hands or bend their wrist. This makes them a better choice for both bright and dim light environments, whether indoors or outdoors.
Your Edge Blog Team: The trigger location is also very different on the two types of mobile devices, correct?
Chandra: Yes, that’s an important call out, as both the aimer and trigger design impact user comfort and factor into barcode scanning speed. With a smartphone, you’re usually triggering the scan using a button located on the front of the device, often on the device screen itself. With Zebra’s enterprise mobile computers, there’s also a physical side trigger, and usually one on each side of the device. So, you can hold the device naturally in one hand and use your thumb to complete the scan without having to move it very far.
Lindsay: The ergonomics determine the effectiveness of a scanning solution as much, if not more, than the scan technology itself, especially when you’re talking about using a smartphone-like mobile device versus a standalone barcode scanner.