Build log: Pay by Tray

Startups have improved on many UX aspects of takeout payments for places like your local coffee shop. Some of these improvements have been customer-facing like contactless payments and automatic tip selection, others are more business-focused like simpler ordering interfaces and better user management.

Very few of these improvements have been implemented in for in-house restaurant payment. We’re still waiting for servers to return with a bill, handing off credit cards, negotiating bill-splitting, calculating tips and waiting again before you can leave. There are a few high-integration apps which solve these problems but I don’t think I need to explain the downsides of requiring some of your party to have to download and sign up for an app to gain these benefits. Takeout payment successes have been primarily focused on business hardware and plenty of takeout payment apps attempting to simplify the process from the consumer side only have failed, in no small part due to the app download hurdle.

Pay by Tray simplifies the payment process for consumers in sit-down restaurants without forcing them to opt-in to some app. Businesses get to simplify payment for customers, gain extra time that waitstaff usually spend running bills and gain additional options for customer payment. No app required.

The product is essentially IoT for bill trays. There’s a nicely designed (draws your eye but at the same time feels familiar) bill tray that has a screen and an NFC reader (maybe a EMV dip slot). At the very least, this prominently displays your bill total. At most, you can pay on the spot with a single phone or multiple phones, splitting the bill and selecting a tip amount without doing any math or asking the waitstaff to go out of their way to split things 5 ways. A small but obviously visible LED on the tray indicates the state of the transaction - pending, paying, paid, etc - so waitstaff can glance at the tray to see that users have paid, particularly because after payment they can just get up and leave.

I’ve been thinking about this idea for a little more than a year - my first notes on this are from October 2014 - but it recently came up again and I dug into the competition to see what was currently available. So far I’ve only found apps that users have to know about and download in advance, thus plenty of effort has gone into making these apps as much about supported restaurant discovery as they are about the actual payment. I think that’s probably a distraction.

It might seem weird to have another build log for a new project so immediately after the initial build log for Watercooler but they’re distinctly different project types to me. Watercooler is a thing I can build just by throwing some hours at the engineering, Pay by Tray is a project I’d do a lot of research on and then go find some funding for a pre-product development cycle. A v1 product is mostly backend and hardware engineering, neither of which I’m very good at so I can’t really jump into the engineering anyways. Well, I can and most likely will just to get things started eventually but this is not an idea I can launch on my own so searching for buy-in from others first is the smart move here.

This has only been on my radar again in the last 48 hours so I’ll dig some more and ask around for feedback from friends next. This is always the most exciting