UK supermarket Tesco says it will update the voice and phrases of its self-service checkouts. This, in itself, is nothing notable, but the reasoning behind it tilts at a broader issue: how we expect computers and robots to address us. Tesco's opinion? We don't want them bossing us around.

Self-service checkouts were introduced in Tesco's UK stores in 2003 and there are over 12,000 installed across the country. Although the retailer says customers find them quick and convenient to use, feedback has also suggested that customers have felt pressurized by the computerized voice instructions. They have been described variously as "shouty" and "irritating."

There's no doubt Tesco will have spent a great deal of time crafting the voice and phrases in line with the checkout process when the self-service checkouts were first introduced – and one could argue that the overly instructive commands may have been necessary at the time. One way or another, however, there is a recognition that many people now find them overbearing.

In a bid to remedy this, Tesco says the machines have been made "friendlier, more helpful and less talkative." Softer phrasing has been introduced and six phrases that were deemed particularly unhelpful have been removed entirely.

Amongst the phrases removed are "please scan your coupons," "please insert your card in to the chip and pin device," "please take your items," "please take your card," and "type the item's description." Anyone who has used a self-service checkout will attest to the fact that these instructions are unnecessary, given that the checkout process is a very familiar one and there are visual cues to aid the process as well. By stating the obvious, such audio instructions serve only to give a sense of robotic condescension to which the customer has no recourse.

Of the phrases that have been updated, "please place the item in the bagging area," has been replaced with "this can now be placed in your bag," "approval needed," has been replaced with "we just need to approve this," and "item removed from bagging area, return item to bagging area before continuing," has been replaced with "has something been removed from your bag?".

The newer phrases are noticeably less instructionary and accusatory. Although they convey the same meaning, they effectively put the customer on the spot to a lesser extent. They cede more decision-making power to the customer (for example, suggesting that something can be placed in a bag rather than ordering it to be) and leave more room for recognition that a problem may be the fault of the machine itself and not that of the customer (for example, asking whether something has been removed from a bag rather than assuming something has).

Although a microcosm of a wider trend, this is an interesting glimpse into how we may ultimately expect helper computers and robots to address us as such interactions become more prevalent. If Tesco's changes are anything to go by, although we may know that these helpers are simply programmed to speak in the way they do, we still want them to do so with grace, etiquette and the underlying recognition that the sentient user probably has a better grasp on the situation that the non-sentient computer.

The new voice and phrases have already been installed in some UK stores and will be rolled out to all UK stores by the end of October.

The video below compares the new, male-spoken phrases with the old, female-spoken phrases.

Source: Tesco