Usability: ATMs

It is interesting, how difficult it can be to use a simple device such as an ATM („bankomat“ in most languages).

Sometimes it is just annoying, sometimes it is really hard to get the machine working properly at all…

So what are the typical use cases? I would say, 90% of the time the intention is to withdraw some money from the main account attached to the card being used. There are some interesting special tasks like looking up the balance or changing the PIN code of the card. And maybe banks are creative and provide even more functionality. Users of the ATM are mostly local users who are customers of the bank that runs the ATM, because they usually provide the best conditions for their own customers. But there are also the foreigners, who do not understand the local language and who want to use a card from somewhere else. Which amazingly sometimes works.

The first question is, in which language to start. Now we usually agree with our bank on some language or the bank imposes its local language on us and we hopefully understand it. So why can’t the ATM find out our language from the card, but asks us as first question, which language we want? There should be a button to change the language, but the machine should be smart enough to figure out our preferred language and the card should provide a preferred language and possibly some alternatives as fallback solution. Also at least for the most common operations a picture could help understand the text of the button.

Reality is, that we find ATMs that work for example in Ukrainian and won’t easily change the language. There is not too much danger in trying several options, but this is annoying for the person who wants to use the ATM and for the ones waiting in the line.

A step that some ATMs provide is that they show how the ATM should look like and to ask us to confirm that the machine is not obviously manipulated. This may be justified for security reasons and it is not too annoying, if we are already in the right language and still have not entered the PIN. When the PIN has been entered, it is already too late. Maybe even when the card has been entered.

Now the PIN code. Usually PIN codes have four digits, but Swiss cards allow six digits, which is a bit better and still reasonable to memorize, because it has always been possible to change the PIN to some memorizable favorite (not „000000“, please) since at least twenty years. I have once seen a ticket vending machine that could only handle four digit PIN codes, but I have never seen an ATM that did not accept six digits. And I have seen ATMs that immediately assume that the number is complete with the sixth digit and thus do not give a chance to correct the last digit. Even worse, the language choice was attached to the „confirm“ button, which therefore could not be used with six digits.

The next step should be to actually withdraw money, with the obvious button, in the right language or at least a secondary language choice and as the largest button or with a picture. In reality it is the third of seven buttons or so, only labeled with text in a language we do not know. And with each wrong choice the PIN has to be entered again. How convenient for the people in the line, if someone does not want to use his own card… Yes, Ukrainians are very honest, but the same applies to any country and to any kind of people who happen to be in the line.

Now the amount. It is a business decision, if the maximum amount we can withdraw is 3 EUR or 3000 EUR or something between. It should be the minimum of what this ATM allows and what our bank allows for this card in this moment. And yes, it would be kind of cool if we could find out about the limit of the ATM before spending too much time with it, especially if each transaction costs about as much as the maximum that the ATM will give us. A good way to enter the amount is just to type on the keyboard. It is obvious and should just work, of course with some way to confirm that this is now the amount we mean, but the „green“ key of the keyboard should just work.

It is really easy to think of good usability for ATMs, but it has not always been done. And it should not be too hard to program their properly.

Writing good software for ticket vending machines is much harder, because there are really much more options and it is usually hard to match the travel plan of the customer with the tariff system of the transport system.

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