Confusing Petrol Pumps

I ran into an infuriating problem while attempting to fill my car with petrol at a Morrisons supermarket recently. The petrol pumps all looked fairly normal, except for the addition of a device below the petrol and price gauge. I had seen the kind of device before, from a distance — it was designed to let you pay directly at the pump if you have an appropriate card (I think it will take most credit/debit cards), rather than having to stand in line at the kiosk to pay.

I simply ignored the device at first, thinking “I won’t be paying at the pump” (I’m a stickler for doing things according to my usual routine!). The gauges indicated that somebody had filled up before me with £60 of fuel, but to my surprise, when I got ready to start pumping petrol, the gauges didn’t reset to zero. I put the nozzle back, and took it out again, but nothing happened. I was determined not to start pumping fuel until the gauge had reset to zero, because I didn’t want to be landed with somebody else’s £60 bill.

So, I looked over this new-fangled device, and there were two buttons: “Pay at kiosk”, and “Pay at pump”. It was obvious that I wanted to pay at the kiosk, but it seemed logical to assume that if the display read £60, and I pushed ANY button labelled “pay”, then I was opting to pay that £60. No way. Not a chance. I didn’t push anything.

Eventually, an attended shouted over to me to push a button, but I tried explaining that the gauge hadn’t reset. He just kept saying “push the button”, and another customer nearby chimed-in “you have to push the button first”. So I relented. I pushed “Pay at kiosk”.

Lo and behold, the gauges reset to zero, and I could start pumping fuel. From then on, everything went as normal, and I went and paid at the kiosk as I usually do.


Ultimately, the system fulfilled its purpose, and I won’t deny that it was simple… just push a button, fill the car with petrol, and pay at the kiosk. Easy. The procedure was almost identical the same one everybody has used day-by-day, week-by-week, to fill their cars with petrol for many years.

So what’s the problem?

Well, I just said it. The procedure was almost identical. But not quite. It was just different enough to be very confusing to anybody who is used to the old way of doing things. (Reminds me of the “uncanny valley” principle as applied to software user interface design.) And given the other people whom the attendants clearly had to help while I was there, it’s a safe bet somebody somewhere really didn’t do any evaluation of their new idea.

That aside, I also strongly criticise the whole notion of pressing a “pay” button when somebody else’s bill is visible. That does not make any sense at all. I realise fully that, for security purposes, you need to know in advance if somebody wants to pay by card, so you can take their details before letting them draw fuel. However, the onus for dealing with that really ought to be on the people who want to do things differently — they expect something to work differently, but the rest of us don’t.

I’m not saying change is bad. Maybe all petrol pumps should ultimately work in the new way so that anybody can pay by card. But if you must make the standard procedure different, then at least make it blatantly apparent at a glance that the system is different, otherwise you are inviting confusion.

2 comments on “Confusing Petrol Pumps

  1. I can no doubt imagine that there was also a clear set of instructions visible view. As for paying for somebody else’s fuel, if u had noticed every petrol pump at every petrol station will always show the previous sale on the screen until it’s authorized for a new transaction, either by the sales assistant or in this case by yourself by pressing a button!

  2. There were actually no instructions for the new device. All it would have needed was something saying “Select payment method before drawing fuel”, but there was no such instruction. (On the other hand, the usual instruction about waiting for the gauges to reset to zero before drawing fuel was still present.) As such, it meant there was just a display showing a price, and buttons beside it marked “Pay”. In that situation, I think it’s logical to conclude it means “Pay this price”.

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