Safe, Smart, and... Fun? The Surprising Science of ATMsS

Using an automated teller machine is inherently risky. You stand there, your back turned, signaling to everyone around that you're about to have a wad of twenties in your pocket. If you're lucky, there's a security guard on duty. But usually it's just you and whoever is lurking in that little convex mirror.

ATMs themselves can't fight crime, but decades of design evolution have made sure the machines themselves don't become perps. Step one: Make sure the money inside is real. As part of a robust system for sorting out fraud, scanners inside the machine not only detect the type of note, they also make sure the bills aren't fake. "One new feature is the ability to blacklist certain serial numbers—to extract that data and compare it to known counterfeits," explains Chris Rowe, vice president of self-service products at ATM manufacturer Diebold.

Deposits are safer too. Modern machines scan a paper check on its front and back faces, and algorithms identify the crucial bits of information. Lately, ATMs can receive deposits without an envelope, which is actually pretty exciting. Jim Block, director of advanced development and technology at Diebold, says the machines could actually scan checks in the early '90s, but it wasn't until October 28, 2004 that the Federal Reserve started accepting an electronic copy of a check to legally stand in for the real thing.

But no matter what you're doing, the ATM has to make sure you're the one doing it. That all hinges on your personal identification number (PIN). It's often punched in on a keypad, instead of a touch screen, because physical buttons have long been the safest (though not infallible) stewards of your secret code. "From the time your pin leaves your fingertips, it's encrypted—no one ever sees that pin in the clear," explains Block. "That tech is just now becoming available on touch screens."

After all that, the communication system connects the access point to the bank. And sometimes juggling that mess of tasks creates a mid-transaction lag.

But Pascal Soboll, a project lead in Germany for the design firm IDEO, explains, "ATM transactions are actually surprisingly fast if you think of the complexity of communication, security protocols, mechanical counting, storing of items, etcetera, which need to take place every time you use one."

A few years back, Spain's Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (which operates in the USA as BBVA Compass) asked IDEO to reinvent the ATM. When they couldn't make the machine function faster, they found a way to trick people into simply believing it was.

"Your impression of the transaction speed depends not just on the absolute period of time you are waiting, but also on what you are experiencing in the meantime," explains Soboll. IDEO noticed that there were moments when customers weren't sure what was going on behind the screen. There's a clicking noise and a disconcerting fan sound, but still no receipt or money. So IDEO implemented a little distraction: A $100 deposit, for instance, playfully pops up on the screen as a stack of $20s. The visual cues, says Soboll, give users "a sense of progress…an intuitive understanding of what is happening at every point in the process." The friendlier set up literally made people smile. No angry finger tapping or furrowed brows. Soboll says that their testing showed people "expressing joy about how intuitive and delightful it was to use."

They went even further by manipulating the way a person approaches the machine. Currently, if someone's acting creepy while you're pulling out your money, the shady behavior is happening behind your back. (Gulp.) So IDEO swiveled the machine 90 degrees. By having users approach the machine with only one shoulder to the wall, suspicious activity takes place in your peripheral vision instead of completely out of your view, which makes people feel safer.

IDEO also made that sideways space more welcoming. "We observed plenty of ergonomic awkwardness when using the machines while carrying handbags, or even more so, with shopping bags," says Soboll. A flat surface was added to the design that could accommodate a purse or coffee, and a bigger kiosk footprint made space for groceries.

An ATM designed by IDEO, with increased safety, a resting place for your beverage, and entertainment? That's progress. At least until we can do all of our banking from bed.


Rachel Swaby is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.


Image: Flickr/eflon under Creative Commons license