Observation of the self-ticketing machines at the movies

What: Self-ticketing machines at movie theaters

How they were used: I expected that people would use them to purchase their tickets. But, I also noticed that people used them to see what movies were playing. And, sometimes they tested the machines to see if they could purchase tickets for a movie that was sold out.

Overall take-away about self-ticketing machines Most of the time we use technology we’re not being watched by people whose opinions we actually care about. Given the context, it seems like the self-ticketing machines are in an environment in which key members of your social group are around you watching you use a machine that could possibly make you look stupid. If I were designing self-ticketing machines, I would keep in mind that clarity and ease of use are important to users, so that they don’t look stupid to the people who are important to them. For the most part that’s true, except in the purchasing part, which is the part that actually matters.

I. Difficulties

Responsiveness of the machines: At the Loews Theater on 3rd Ave, the machine didn’t respond to very well, which prompted the person using the machine to touch the screen repeatedly.

Confusion when using the credit card swipe: Both at the Loews and at Regal Union Square Stadium 14, I observed at least two people becoming confused when trying to use the credit card machine. At Loews, I was too far away to notice read the screen to see what particular problem the woman was having, but the effect was that she tried to swipe her card about 4-5 times before she finally completed her purchase. At the other theater, the difficulty another person experienced with the credit card swipe had to do with the fact that she kept swiping her card in the wrong direction. Eventually, she was able to figure it out.

Even myself, at yet another theater, City Cinemas Village East, I had difficulty using the machine, too. Twice. First, I used my debit card to pay and when I got to a numeric keyboard display, I assumed that what I needed to press was my PIN, when I actually needed to press my zip code. The result was that I canceled the process. Then when I tried again, I got this screen. It’s a very accurate picture, as you can tell.

Inconsistency within the self-ticketing machine.
Inconsistency within the self-ticketing machine.

II. Completion time

When used correctly, the machine takes less than one minute to operate, from selecting a movie to picking up your tickets. I observed someone using the machine in under a minute. Actually, it was probably more like 30 seconds. (I looked away so that the people inside the theater lobby wouldn’t think I was stalking them. When I looked back, the person had finished.) At any stage during the process, it seems that you get about 1.5-2 minutes to complete a step before it asks if you need more time. With continued inactivity, it cancels the process and returns to the “home” screen.

III. Context of use

There were a couple of things I noticed about people using these machines that were affected by the general layout of the theater and the general social atmosphere of the environment at the movies.

Theater Layout: The Regal Cinema at Union Square had the most issue with layout affecting self-ticketing machines because at the Loews Theater on 3rd Ave, most people purchase their tickets from the person in the ticket booth outside, so they have their tickets before entering the theater. The biggest effect layout had on people using the self-ticketing machines had to do with crowding. This effect was exacerbated by the social context of people going to the movies.

The crowding effect – In the ticket machine room, there are about 15-18 machines. Most of them are grouped underneath the light board showing the movie titles and schedule. If you’re like me, when you walk into Regal Union Square Stadium 14, the first thing you do is turn right into this room, because it’s faster than waiting in line. I observed that as soon as people walked into this space they tended to stop a few feet from the entrance to the room in order to read the board. Stopping in front of the entrance, of course, blocks anyone else from coming in…which blocks people from using the machines.

(Solution!) To fix this problem, my thought was that if the board were on a different wall, this would get a better flow of people through the space. Particularly if it were on a back wall, since the majority of the people didn’t come more than two-thirds into the room.

Social Context of Use If you’re not like me when you go to the movies, this probably means you have come to the movies with at least one other person. When people arrived at the theater, they often came with friends and family, or they came alone and then met up with another person. So pretty much anything that a person does at the theater, they do with another person or more. When people are interacting with the self-ticketing machines, what really happens is that there are at least two people standing at one machine watching the screen while one of them actually touches the interface. I also noticed that even when there are more than two people are at the theater together all of them stand around the machine while to purchase their tickets.

This is why I feel that it’s very important that these machines not make people look like they don’t know how to operate a machine. Their friends are watching. Their date is watching. It’s not cool to make someone look dumb when they’re out on a date.

(Even President Obama knows this! President Obama apologizes for messing up journalist’s game.)


My last two observations to note are: “Proximity to the machine” and “What else do people do in self-ticketing space?”.

Proximity: When purchasing tickets, I noticed that when a person reached the point of purchase, he or she took a step closer to the machine. Maybe this behavior is just to get close enough to actually swipe their credit card effectively, or maybe it’s just that people feel better when they’re standing closer to the machine when paying for their tickets. Anyway, getting closer to the machines can be difficult in a crowded theater.

Sometimes, people also had a tendency to sort of play with the machines. Occasionally, a person who clearly did not intend to purchase a ticket would go to a machine and touch it as if they were going to purchase a ticket. When people did this, they often stood a little farther away from the machine, so that the machine was not really too much in their personal space. They also stood at an angle to the machine, so that they were not “squared off” in front of it – shoulders and hips aligned on top of each other so as to create a square, directly facing the machine.

What else do people do in the self-ticketing space: Aside from waiting around and chatting with their friends, the majority of people were using their cell phones. It seemed sometimes that maybe 50% of the people in the space were on the phone. They used their phones before and after purchasing tickets, perhaps to see what other movies were playing nearby, and possibly also to purchase tickets via their phone.

Alone again at the movies, I think I was the only person watching people use the self-ticketing machines.