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October 22nd, 2001

How to Fix ATMs

Yesterday, I tried to deposit money into an ATM. The first ATM I visited included an envelope spitter-outer, which meant that I would have a limited amount of time to get everything in order. So I drove over to my bank, which had a drive-through ATM. That machine was broken. This branch also had a walk-up ATM which was… also broken.

Frustrated, I drove to another bank, with a working drive-up ATM. All right! Until… it came time to read the screen. Yesterday was a bright and sunny day, and the sunlight entirely washed out the screen of the ATM, making it near unusable. Holding one’s hand out over an ATM screen certainly isn’t convenient. But I managed to navigate the menus, and prepared everything for my deposit. The ATM told me to insert an envelope but, surprise!, there were no envelopes. This particular machine also featured an envelope spitter-outer, which was non-functional. After a few moments, I got my card back.

Finally, at another bank: an ATM with a stack of envelopes that was working. All it took was about 30 minutes.

Is it nuts? Yes. Does it happen all the time? Absolutely. ATMs are often broken, and when they’re working properly, they’re designed with some of the worst interfaces this side of Seattle. Here’s how I think we can fix ATMs.

1. Make the screens legible. This is tough, but possible. I shouldn’t have to navigate through a menu system blindfolded. Large letters, and easy contract (black on white is still best).

2. Consistent interfaces all around. Banks want to stand out and be different, even though the products are the same at the core. And likewise, we’ve got a few major interfaces to choose from for computers. But ATMs are more perfunctory than computers, and we shouldn’t have to learn to adapt to a new system every time. There is some consistency intrabank; there needs to be that consistency interbank.

3. More iconography. This is hand-in-hand with the consistent interface, but working with more in the way of icons will help the language issue. Most ATMs in my area let you choose between English and Spanish.

4. Make non-functioning machines visible. I shouldn’t have to drive up to an ATM, or walk up to one, to know it’s not working. At least some sort of status light (red = broken?) would be handy.

5. Let me get change! All too often, I need a roll of quarters for laundry (renting, fun) or the parking meters. I have to do this at the bank. Let me do this at the ATM! I’ve seen machines that let one get stamps or phone minutes. Change seems like a natural. As an added bonus, let it spit out the dollar coin at people – that coin is all but gone due to lack of usage.

Any other suggestions? -pm

Posted in Consumer Commentary

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