U.S. Ergonomics (and Three Other Scanning Experts) Just Explained Why Front-Line Workers Favor Enterprise-Grade Mobile Computers Over Consumer Smartphones for Barcode Scanning
A newly published independent study and subsequent roundtable discussion detail the physical reality of capturing digital data in busy business operations.
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.
Your Edge Blog Team: We have experienced that struggle with smartphones. It’s not easy to hold anything else in your hand while you’re trying to capture an image or scan a QR code.
Lindsay: Exactly. To me, using the camera on the back of our smartphones to scan barcodes regularly is a bit like trying to use a paint brush to paint lanes on a highway, or hiring a moving company with a small van to move an entire house of belongings cross country. It’s technically possible to do these things, but it’s inefficient, time consuming and downright exhausting.
Chandra: Well, I think the numbers speak for themselves here, too. In the U.S. Ergonomics study, when the physical demand of the scanning process was tracked using electromyography (EMG) sensors, there was a correlation between muscle work and postural demands and productivity.
Your Edge Blog Team: Can you explain a bit why muscle work and postural demands specifically were measured?
Chandra: Lower muscle effort and reduced induced postural movements – which are nonvalue added motions – lead to improved productivity. This equates to more work done with less physical effort.
Your Edge Blog Team: What did the study reveal regarding these physical measurements?
Chandra: The lowest physical demand levels were achieved with the TC52ax, which has the integrated scan engine located on the top of the device and a physical button on the side. It required 23%–48% less muscle work and up to 60% less postural demands than the consumer phone-camera systems and resulted in greater productivity.
To put the difference in perspective: workers saved over five minutes per hour – totaling 41 minutes each day – simply by using the scan engine and physical button versus the camera and virtual button to complete identical workloads. what’s significant when you consider what else they could do with that time.
Your Edge Blog Team: What contributed to the significant differences?
Chandra: A camera scan needs significant user training to be effective, and it’s difficult for an untrained user to adjust focus and judge distance, such as when moving the device from an item to a tote. Omni-directionality is not leveraged with camera scanners since the tendency is to keep the device in portrait mode to maintain the barcode in viewfinder and, with camera scanning, the user is forced to work sequentially, in stops and starts and a single task at a time.
Plus, a user who is forced to adapt to a camera scanner using non-value-added movements – such as positioning an item in a viewfinder – could experience increased fatigue over the shift. Likewise, having to use awkward wrist positions or bend over more, especially when scanning totes and high or low shelf tags, will contribute to fatigue. The user will also have to continuously transfer their attention from the viewfinder to the item in their hand. All this will also affect restocking, for example, as users won’t be able to move as fast.
Your Edge Blog Team: Is it safe to assume that devices with integrated scan engines address all these issues?
Chandra: Yes. With an integrated scan engine, it’s easier for an untrained user to adapt. Omni-directionality is more naturally leveraged since there is no viewfinder constraint and the aiming dot provides a clear visual cue. There are fewer non-value-added movements and awkward wrist positions, if any at all, and minimal bending is required since the scanning range is more intuitive and adaptive.
There are more look ahead/scan ahead actions possible with the integrated scan engine as well, and it’s easier and more intuitive to scan low and high shelves. So, the user can work more smoothly in their workflow and multi-task by anticipating the next scan, which helps them move faster through restocking or any other scan-intensive task.
Your Edge Blog Team: Are you surprised, then, that so many business decision-makers are still opting to give front-line workers mobile devices that rely on camera decoders and front-face triggers to capture and process barcode data?
Chandra: Absolutely. Just consider the last time you made an online order for same day in-store or curbside pickup. Customers want their items quick, and retailers often promise it in as little as two hours or less. Any delay could result in a customer abandoning their purchase, leaving poor reviews or, worse, taking their future business elsewhere.
That is just one example of why I find it hard to believe that anyone in the retail, healthcare, hospitality or customer service space would choose a device that could slow down transactions.
If it takes two, three, even ten seconds to scan a customer’s item at a mobile point of sale (mPOS) because the consumer device’s camera has to be lined up perfectly, that’s far too long. And if the camera can’t “find” the barcode and the associate has to ask the customer to follow them to an open register to use a handheld barcode scanner or bioptic scanner to process the item, that delays the transaction even more – and everyone gets flustered.
In a warehouse or on a delivery route, taking even two seconds to scan each barcode is a second too long. Think about how many barcodes must be scanned to get orders picked, packed and out the door on time in this day and age. Or how many barcodes a delivery driver must scan on their route.
Why would you spend money on anything that could slow down transactions? It’s so important to think about how the device as a whole plays into speed, efficiency and accuracy both for queue busting and the overall customer experience, even when it’s slower.
Your Edge Blog Team: And how mobile computer ergonomics factor into those performance metrics too, right?
Andrew: 100%. I mean, thanks to the thoughtful product design and engineering work by Zebra’s teams, we saw the TC52ax users move less and experience less strain on their muscles than users of the tested consumer devices – all while scanning more barcodes in the same amount of time. That’s remarkable. I just hope tech buyers for front-line workers value these differences as much as the workers themselves do.
If you have questions about what we discussed or want to chat about how the report findings might impact your next mobile device purchase for your front-line workforce, you can find Lindsay on LinkedIn or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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