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Dan Rubin's SuperfluousBanter

Design, random musings, and the Web. Since 1977


ATM Contingency Design

Everybody needs to use an ATM at some point. Personally I would like all money
to be virtual, no coins, no paper, nothing. Of course there are some reasons
to why that’s not the case, but I will not discuss those here. Rather
I will have a look at an ATM machine I recently used and in my opinion has some
design issues.

ATM machine 1

The ATM flow has been simplified to 7 basic steps. I insert my card, choose
a language (optional, depending on card), provide the machine with my personal
code, pick an amount that is listed (alternatively I can choose to manually
input an amount, I left this option out to keep it simple), I decide whether
I want a receipt or not, I withdraw my card and finally I withdraw my money

The problem I have, as you will soon discover, is with step 5. As such there’s
nothing wrong with providing a receipt of course. But I never need one, so I
always hit NO and don’t even think about it. It actually
becomes a challenge to go through all steps as fast as possible—I’m
on autopilot and know all the steps by heart.

ATM machine 2

Now the above graphic is exactly the same as the first one, except that step 5 has
changed. The problem is that the machine has no paper left, so you can’t
get a receipt. This happens occassionally and I can’t really blame the machine. If it’s empty, it’s empty. Besides
I never need a receipt anyway. But I’m on autopilot, remember? I’m
accustomed to their normal flow. It’s a bit like software installations—no
one is reading the license agreement, you just select “I agree”
and hit next.

Not surprisingly, I don’t actually read the message and hence don’t
notice it’s actually different. I hit NO automagically.
What? The machine spits out my card and aborts the transaction.
Uh? So I go through all the steps again and discover the message
in step 5 has actually changed. So instead I hit YES and get
my money. Duh!

If you’re going to alter the normal flow of an operation please let me
know. Make the screen red or something. Just change it from the default design.
It’s not my fault that the machine has no paper left to print out receipts.
Once people get the gist of a system they become used to it. If something is
going to change you should better have a good reason for it and clearly indicate
to users it’s something different than they’re used to.

This item was posted by dhilhorst on Saturday, April 3rd, 2004.


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18 comments on “ATM Contingency Design”

  1. Posted by Robb Lee on Saturday, April 3rd, 2004.

    I’ve always wondered why Step #2 exists. Why does the ATM machine have to ask me what language I wish to use?

    My bank loves to trumpet loudly about how much they believe in customer service and treating me like a person instead of a nameless/faceless transaction. In fact, they’ve even devised a customer service guarantee. Yet, they still treat me like a complete stranger every time I interact with their automation technology.

    Were my banking institution sincere about their claims of customer service, the question about my language preference would only be asked once–at the time my ATM card was issued. My preference would be hard-coded into the magnetic strip on my ATM card and from that point on, my transactions would automatically default to the language I chose.

    Of course, there would need to be a way for me to override that default setting if necessary (but I can’t imagine one would need to override often, if ever). And, the question would likely still be asked by “foreign” ATMs that cannot recognize that the language preference is hard-coded into my card.

    If a bank wanted to take this concept further, they could build some intelligence into their software to notice my ATM usage patterns and customize the “fast track” options based on my behavior. If my most common behavior is to withdrawl $40.00 cash from the machine, it could offer that as the primary option in Step #4 above, further streamlining my user experience at the ATM.

    These small usability issues seem simple and obvious to me. Yet, they could form the basis of a compelling advertising and marketing campaign *demonstrating* a commitment to customer service, rather than empty promises and marketing hype.

  2. Posted by amanda on Sunday, April 4th, 2004.

    At one point NatWest experimented with a form of “fast track” screens – if you had the time and inclination you could set up a few quick options that would be accessible from one of the opening sets of options. I recall setting up “£20 and receipt” as one. The problem with this, of course, was that you had to spend time initially setting it up, but it was also a failure in that it didnt let you name the options, they were just “option 1”, “option 2” etc – I could never recall which one was which, and ended up using the normal set of screens instead.

    I tend not to use the same ATMs, and find that there is a lot of variance in the screens used to walk through the process – one of the things that catches me a lot is the “key in your PIN”, some machines require that I key in my PIN *and* press enter, some just the PIN. Some machines require me to chose a lanaguage – others dont. The positioning of the amount options isn’t really standardised either. So I’ve given up ever being fast at a cashpoint.

  3. Posted by Mike on Monday, April 5th, 2004.

    My biggest problem with ATM machines is that the screen is almost always lower than my head. Usually, at least a foot or so below my field of vision (I’m 6′ tall).

    Now, when I’m looking at the screen choices and seeing which physical buttons they line up with, I have to actually bend over to look at the screen and see which buttons I should push. The ocular angle changes my perception of where the screen choices line up with their physical counterpart, and thus forces me to waste my time (and look foolish) by squatting down so I don’t make a mistake.

    Stupid usability ;)

  4. Posted by waylman on Monday, April 5th, 2004.

    Mike, I have the very same problem. (I’m 6′ 4″). In fact, just the other day I thought the ATM was stuck at the ‘Do you want a receipt’ screen. I kept pushing the second button from the top. It seemed to line up with the desired selection from my point of view. As we can all see in Didier’s graphic above, I should have hit the third from top (I almost always get a receipt). After 4 or 5 tries, I backed up, bent over and realized the problem. I then pushed the correct button and everything worked fine.

    So why did it take me so many tries to figure out the probelm? I got that machine confused with an ATM at another bank that is even more anoying (I, like amanda, use many differing machines). This particular machine is very slow. Every time I make a selection the screen changes imiediatly and tells me to wait while it processes my request. Every time, but one! When I tell this machine wheather I want a receipt or not, the screen does not change for 20-30 seconds. After about 5 seconds I assume I hit the worng button again and make my selection a second time. I’m certain this makes the process start over and I have to wait the full 30-30 seconds from the last time I hit the button. While the wait is annoying, the fact that it is different from the rest of the system is even moreso.

  5. Posted by Andy Budd on Monday, April 5th, 2004.

    In the UK, my banks ATM’s – which, incidentally, we still call cash machines – go through a slightly different flow

    1. Insert card

    2. Choose service. This is usually cash with receipt, cash without receipt, balance, statement etc

    3. Choose amount. This is usually £10, £20, £50, £100, £200, other

    4. Do you require other services?

    4. Get cash

  6. Posted by Sean Scott on Monday, April 5th, 2004.

    Robb, there is a wonderfull reason why ATMs should have the ability to display their option in many languages, it’s called tourist. Try taking out cash in Germany or Turkey without English instructions.

    Fortunately banks in the US and Italy and i am sure countless otther countries do provide this service already. Sure it may not be free checking, but it does help.

  7. Posted by Jemal on Monday, April 5th, 2004.

    The correct way to present the “No Paper” dialog is to use the other two side buttons for yes and no – That way it’ll pull you out of autopilot enough to make you read the screen.

  8. Posted by Jennifer Grucza on Monday, April 5th, 2004.

    Another tall person here (6’2″) who gets annoyed at stooping at the ATM.

    Whenever they have two or more ATMs together, they should put them at different heights, like they do water fountains in stores. One for short people and people in wheelchairs, and one for taller people.

  9. Posted by Richard on Monday, April 5th, 2004.

    Off-topic question: What did you use to create the ATM graphic? Very nice!

  10. Posted by Didier Hilhorst on Monday, April 5th, 2004.

    Richard – The graphic was made using Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Fireworks. I work with both applications. I like how Fireworks renders pixel fonts. For other aspects I rely on Photoshop. Both applications have their respective advantages, but Photoshop remains the most robust and complete piece of software to create graphics.

    From the comments it seems there’s a whole lot wrong with current ATM’s (or cash machines), not just the display. I’m still surprised how many interfaces we use on a daily basis, or atleast regularly, are poorly designed or engineered.

  11. Posted by Peter Eliasson on Tuesday, April 6th, 2004.

    1. About the ‘height’ issue: I’m 6′ 2″ but don’t experience the same problem with ATMs, possibly because the screen placement on swedish ones (that’s where I live) differs from US/UK ones? Over here we get another complaint; people with disabilities have trouble using our ATM, they’re to high up!

    2 Annoyance nobody mentioned: Why can’t the blasted machine tell me there’s only SEK 500 bills available BEFORE I insert my card? I have to insert card, give code and then be told! Grumble, grumble…

  12. Posted by Robb Lee on Tuesday, April 6th, 2004.

    Sean Scott, I don’t take issue with ATM’s offering the user interface in different languages… I think that’s great. And your tourist example is one of many illustrations of why a multiple language options are necessary.

    My issue is with the fact that the ATM doesn’t *have* to ask me what my language preference is every time I initiate a transaction. My language preference could be hard-coded into my ATM card.

    I’m sure there may be situations where I’d want to interact with the machine in, lets say, Portugese rather than my default preference of German. But the option to switch to a language other than my default choice could be on a sencondary or tertiary level… not the primary transaction path.

    Of course, any ATM machine that didn’t recognize the coding on my card would have to resort to asking my language preference, but that would be a minor inconvenience only when I use a “foreign” ATM (and a potential selling point for my bank–“Whenever you use an ACME branded ATM, you can be sure we’ll know what language to speak to you”)

    On a related note: I’m 6’1″ and also find myself frustrated with the ATM screen being too low. However, I figure that’s just a price I pay for being tall. It’s easy for me to crouch down to see the screen properly. It’s much more difficult for a disabled person to increase their height to easily interact with a screen oriented to someone of my height.

  13. Posted by Phil Scott on Tuesday, April 6th, 2004.

    The machines that are slowly driving me insane are the ones at grocery stores and the such for doing debit / credit card transactions. Each one is different, and each one is poorly done.

    For example, after typing in your pin number at Target the thing loudly beeps at you and shoots your card out. Which even after 20+ times of using the thing I still panic thinking that my card is busted or I got my PIN wrong. Nope, the obnoxious beep is to inform you that your card has been ejected and you should grab it while the transaction completes. I guess I’m used to ATMs that hold your card until the transaction is done, because it is disconcerning to see your card spit out before the transaction completes.

    At the Winn-Dixie grocery store the buttons for Ok / Cancel and Yes / No are shared. Along with four buttons along the top for making decisions. So you are presented with a screen that looks like this (with top row buttons “rendered”)

    Would you like cash back? Yes / No


    It certainly looks like I could click on a top row button to choose yes or no, but instead if you don’t want cash back you press the CANCEL button.

    At Krogers if you want cash back, the secret is to press No when the thing asks you if the amount listed is correct. The screen says “Is this amount correct?” pauses 5 or 6 seconds and then displays “Press No for cashback.”


  14. Posted by Ruben on Thursday, April 8th, 2004.

    I always thought ATM’s in other countries were so smart they could recognize my foreign card, because here in the Netherlands I’ve never seen the screen with step #2 and in the rest of Europe and beyond I usually do get it (except at some local banks).

    I’m on the autopilot as well at ATM’s. But the alternative step #5 (no receipt available) is so common here that I have automatically adopted my flow to a tiny pause here, just to confirm the message on the screen.

    By the way, a few months back I stumbled upon an ATM that was out of order. But instead of the usual out-of-order message, I got to see a nice green standard Windows desktop with a few icons. Especially funny was my impulse to look for the mouse to reboot the server.

  15. Posted by Jennifer Grucza on Thursday, April 8th, 2004.

    Speaking of paying at the store, why does there have to be a step to choose between credit card and debit? I thought the point of a debit card was that you could use it the exact same way as a credit card.

  16. Posted by Didier Hilhorst on Thursday, April 8th, 2004.

    Another problem I was confronted with today: the sun. If the sun shines directly at the ATM screen or it’s a bright day overall there’s no way you can see what’s happening on the screen. I’m tall too, so I need to make all sorts of weird movements and basically have my nose touching the screen to see what to do. But I guess the light issue is a tough one to resolve. Though from the experiences I read here we can start a petition requesting better ATM machines!

  17. Posted by Jake Walker on Friday, April 9th, 2004.

    In England, one of the best things ATMs do is require you to grab your card before they spit out the cash. This ensures you don’t leave your card behind. The first time it happens as a foreigner, you are freaked out (my card didn’t work?!?), but after that you grow to appreciate this small piece of genius.

    Fleet Bank (now part of Bank of America) lets you set language preferences one time, and stores them on the card.

    When I go to an ATM, 95% of the time, I withdraw $100 with no receipt. Why not keep track of that and after a few of those withdraws, offer me that with one touch?

  18. Posted by Lebeko on Monday, April 26th, 2004.

    Hi, I am 6′ 3″ and agree with all the other tall users about the button perception problem. My specific query is about the ‘confirmation tones’ that ATMS spit out when you enter your PIN. These sound like DTMF tones and can thus be ‘hacked’. What is the benefit of these tones? Can they be generated randomly by each ATM?