I purchased a not-so-new home last year, and like many new homeowners, I have a laundry list of home improvement tasks. I took a week off from work earlier this year to tackle five projects. The previous owners had painted the bathrooms the dreariest and darkest of greys that made me cringe every time I saw them, so I decided that had to be project one. On the last day of my “vacation,” I had barely checked that single item off my list.
“What went wrong?” you may ask. No, I didn’t get distracted. I just got duped by my misguided thinking that doing things myself – “the most cost-efficient way” – would be best.
I bought paint, tape, brushes, and rollers and got started on what I thought would be a two-day project, max. Well, five painfully long days later, I was done. I realized almost right away my mistake…I should have hired a professional… or at least considered the techniques and tools they use, like an airbrush paint sprayer that would have coated my walls with a perfect, flawless finish in a fraction of the time it took me to roll on paint, section by daunting section. But I wanted to save money and, unfortunately, I paid for it in a big way.
Will I go and buy an airbrush paint sprayer now that I know better? If this was my everyday job, you better believe I would! But, no, I won’t be doing any painting anytime soon. Next time I decide I need a change of wall color, I am going to relax and hire a professional – someone who will have invested in the right tools to work efficiently and maximize their own profits.
In the months since this not-so-fun week off work, I’ve started drawing parallels between my personal experience and other people’s professional experiences. How many times do company decision-makers, trying to do the right thing and save money, end up making decisions that cost their companies even more money? How often is the “total cost” really calculated – or overlooked?
I have spent close to a decade on Zebra’s Enterprise Mobile Computing Product Management Team, focused on data capture in the most recent years. While the majority of our customers realize the value of mobile computers with dedicated scan engines, every once in a while, my colleagues and I will meet a retailer, warehouse operator, or logistics manager who has given – or considered giving – their front-line workers consumer-grade mobile devices to scan barcodes. Typically, this decision is made based on a cost savings perception, as the sticker price of a consumer device is often lower than the sticker price of an enterprise grade mobile computer. But as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. That’s why so many end up calling Zebra.
Scanning barcodes with your smartphone camera is the equivalent of painting your own bathrooms with a brush and rollers.
Is it doable? Sure?
Is it efficient? Not at all.
Will you save money? Not in the end. You will pay for it in time, not to mention some aches and pains. And by time, I’m not just talking about the time it will take you to figure out workarounds and manage each “redo.” I’m also talking about the time that customers will have to wait while workers consistently try – and try again – to get a good scan, or the time it takes for a worker to get out a ladder or lift truck to climb to the top shelf to scan the items and see if they’re the right ones.
Time is money. It is also one of the many factors impacting the total cost of ownership (TCO) for your mobility solution. Plus, every extra second spent trying to scan a barcode is a second that a worker could be doing something else. It is a second revenue is being lost, possibly permanently. People are impatient. They get frustrated when they must wait in line. And with the wrong tools and equipment to do their jobs, your employees will feel the brunt of impatient customers. In turn, they may get frustrated and annoyed because they weren’t equipped to do their jobs to customers’ standards.
That’s why my team and I decided to commission a study with United States Ergonomics (US Ergo), a consulting company that specializes in product and workplace ergonomics. I wanted to understand what type of mobile computers front-line workers might need to be as efficient as a professional painter with the right equipment – but from a barcode scanning perspective.
Why the Barcode Scanning Experience Deserved a Closer Look
Barcodes are the universal machine language, at least when it comes to commerce. They are on nearly every item we use in our everyday lives, and chances are you are probably within arm’s reach of at least three barcodes as you read this. As such, barcode scanning is a predominant part of the everyday routine for millions of front-line workers across retail, warehousing, transportation, logistics, hospitality, healthcare and more. Some people literally spend every second of their shifts scanning labels, packages, bins, and pallets, while others find themselves repeatedly scanning barcoded loyalty cards, driver’s licenses, and patient wristbands. And though scanning a barcode should be the easiest thing they do all day, many front-line workers will tell you that, without the right equipment, it’s one of the hardest.
We wanted to help ensure the mobile computer/barcode scanning systems that Zebra teams are designing, engineering and selling for scan-intensive workflows will allow your front-line workers to be efficient. We also wanted to ensure these technology tools don’t cause any pain for workers, either, since they would be used all day, every day. We figured that a third party would tell us honestly if Zebra’s mobile computers are more like a DIY or a professional painter experience when it comes to capturing barcodes. So, we reached out to US Ergo, a consulting company whose services include testing, risk assessment, program strategy, training and certification for scanning solutions. Its team could offer a uniquely unbiased assessment of how well different Zebra technology works in real-world use cases on the front lines and compared to consumer-grade systems.
What We Knew from the Start
Zebra has been in the automated data capture business for over 50 years. We know not all barcode scanning technologies are created equal, and that there are differences in how enterprise scan engines and camera-based decoders work. But we also know that’s not common knowledge, not even among tech buyers.
For example, it felt revolutionary when we were able to start using our personal smartphone cameras to scan barcodes. We could hold them in front of a QR code on TV, magazine ad or a shelf label at a store to get more information about an item or take advantage of a discount. Over time, many people started to believe that mobile device cameras could be similarly used to scan barcodes in business environments, such as in picking or point-of-sale workflows. However, all our development research validates that it is simply not true. Even recently, a big-box retailer came to us looking for help after deploying consumer-grade mobile devices that did not meet their scanning expectations. If you only need to scan a barcode as an exception, maybe a consumer smartphone is “good enough.” But if scanning barcodes is a regular occurrence that your business relies on, you will not have the same outcomes as you would with a purpose-built enterprise device and built-in scan engine.
Enterprise-grade devices take an integrated system approach to barcode scanning, with the hardware, imaging processing software and decoders all uniquely and cohesively designed at the same time to allow for a truly intelligent and intuitive scanning experience. Whereas consumer-grade devices only have one component, the software decoder that’s designed for barcode scanning, and it’s attached to – not integrated with – a bunch of other disparate parts. Plus, smartphones use cameras, not scan engines, to scan barcodes.
So, much like that big-box retailer, deploying consumer-grade camera-based decoders could negatively impact your business performance and capacity if you’re trying to scan…
- a lot of barcodes in a short period of time, or even a single barcode quickly or while multitasking.
- barcodes from a distance.
- barcodes behind tape or shelf liners.
- barcodes that are dirty, damaged, faded, or “less than perfect” in any way.
It’s not just because of the camera technology or barcode decoders either. It’s also the user experience. Think about how you scan a QR code to open a restaurant menu on your smartphones today. You probably use two hands, right? I often use one hand to hold the device and my other hand to launch the camera. I then move my device to make sure the QR code is visible on my screen. And maybe it’s because I am used to the speed of our Zebra purpose-built mobile computing devices, but I literally count the time it takes to read the QR code and prompt me to launch the URL. It’s not instant. Now imagine having that same experience –as a front-line worker who must frequently scan barcodes among other tasks. Just consider how frustrating it would be to have to repeat that inefficient, uncomfortable process every time you need to scan a customer’s items or when you’re on the floor trying to replenish shelf inventory or pick an online order. Barcode scanning needs to be a comfortable, one-handed action – at least in our opinion.
What We Didn’t Know
We wanted to understand if other people felt the same way we did. Is there anything specific about the device itself – the ergonomics and other functionality – that they feel differentiates the scanning experience of enterprise and consumer-grade mobile devices? For example, does the aimer or placement of the trigger button make a difference in how tedious or simple a scan is for a front-line worker?
We obviously had our theories, but we wanted to make sure our perspective wasn’t skewed by our attachment to enterprise mobile computers. We didn’t want to be that person who says their child or dog is the best at something just because we love them so much. We wanted to get objective feedback from an unbiased third party to make sure our claims were grounded in fact.
Enter US Ergo.
What We Know Now
As you’ll see when you read through the US Ergo study findings, the user perception of the Zebra TC52ax enterprise-grade mobile computer with an integrated scan engine ranked “superior” to the consumer-grade device/camera scanning experience across all survey categories. Ratings included overall performance, ease of use, efficiency, durability, weight, size, comfort, and other criteria. US Ergo even tested the camera scanning system on one of the Zebra EC55 models to see how it performed compared to the consumer devices. The EC55 has the enterprise-level scanning functionality and physical scan button design, but some versions scan using only the camera on the back of the device, which is more like a consumer experience.
If you’re in the market for a new mobility solution for your scan-intensive workflows, I highly recommend you check out this report before you make a recommendation to your boss or a decision on behalf of your front-line workers.
If you have any questions once you go through it, feel free to contact me or your local Zebra representative. We’re happy to talk through these findings objectively and even demonstrate the differences between different types of devices – and different Zebra devices – in your business setting.