Back Office Workbuster

Great design is all too often associated with successful consumer products, from a sleek Braun coffee maker to the "aero-shaped" Ford Taurus. These are products people enjoy using in their daily lives. But what about at work? NCR Corp. has won a prize for a machine that most people will never see. The company, a unit of American Telephone & Telegraph Corp., designed its 7880 Workstation to make things easier and more pleasant for employees doing one of the most thankless of routine jobs: "back-office" sorting of checks, remittance slips, and other items.

In most banks, the sorting of checks is a high-pressure, assembly-line type of job done in basements full of noisy machines. They frequently jam and require constant attention. A year and a half in the making, the 7880 does the job more quietly by replacing as many as 20 conventional sorters and other machines. It is designed to be easier to operate and maintain than competing models, too. "Our mandate was to improve the quality of working life" at banks and other institutions, explains Vern Tarbutt, an industrial designer at NCR's Imaging Systems Div. in Waterloo, Ont.

The 7880's job is to process stacks of checks, remittance slips, and other paper items. Once its hopper is loaded, it scans the pieces of paper electronically. Built-in computer circuitry reads numbers on each item and prints other information on them in magnetic ink. It then sorts the checks or remittance slips into as many as 40 bins. Images of items that can't be read are sent to remote terminals for manual coding.

A primary goal of NCR's design group was to make the operation of its check- processor as intuitive, as easy to use without referring to manuals, as possible. Early on, test subjects were videotaped using mock-ups of particular pieces of the machine. That helped NCR modify its final design so that it takes only a quick glance for a worker to grasp its workings. The entry areas for documents, for instance, are designed to suggest the best hand motions and the direction that documents will travel. Overall, the system is controlled by means of graphical software on a video-display screen. Controlling the machine is an IBM-compatible personal computer.

Special attention was paid to aesthetics, too, to give the 7880 a touch of elegance not usually found in banking machines. Important components were color-coded to help operators run the machine, but the use of accent colors was restrained to maintain a high degree of sophistication. Indeed, Tarbutt says customers have expressed confidence in the machine, at least partly because they assume that the level of outside detailing is reflected in its internal mechanics.

Finally, the system was designed for comfortable use by a wide range of people, from small women to large men. It has built-in storage and writing surfaces and a movable keyboard. And unlike some other banking machines, no particularly demanding physical tasks are required of the operator. What more could you ask for in a check-sorter?