Preventing User Errors in Automated Teller Machines

by on 10/11/11 at 7:42 am

People use automated teller machines (ATM) daily all over the world. But some of these ATMs cause users to make errors that could cost them more than they can bargain for.

Hundreds if not thousands of ATM users forget their credit cards at the ATMs in Argentina. Why? Because most users leave once they get their cash, and many ATMs give users their cash first before they get their credit card back. If users are in a rush or have other concerns on their mind, such as keeping their kids waiting in the car or being late to the movies, they will easily take the money and leave.

ATMs can easily prevent this user error by rearranging the task flow. In Israel, the ATMs give you the credit card first and then the money. They know you won’t leave until you get the money, so they make sure you have done every single step of the task before they leave you satisfied. This simple change in the task flow saved millions of dollars in all the work related to lost credit cards.

The general take away from this is that the task’s success should not depend on the users’ memory. The application flow should lead the user through the essential steps to ensure satisfaction and prevent errors. A more specific insight is that the user tends to perceive the task as done once he achieved his desired goal. Additional steps beyond this point

Additional steps beyond this point are irrelevant, so make sure that the user has done everything they need to do before you give them their result. This prevents users from abandoning their task before it’s complete and ends their task on a high note.


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Claudio has been conducting user research and translating business needs into human-centered experiences for 10+ years. Claudio completed a BA in Psychology, an MA in Neuroscience, and an MSc in Human-Computer Interaction.

19 Responses to “Preventing User Errors in Automated Teller Machines”

  1. Tim

    Oct 11th, 2011

    Most of the ATMs around me (Virginia, USA) give you your card back first IF you choose a single transaction (for instance “fast cash” which just gives you the amount specified and then you’re done).

    But if you choose a path that likely takes you to multiple transactions, it doesn’t make sense to give you card back after the first transaction. That is, unless you want to argue that you don’t need to leave the card in to continue making subsequent transactions, but I figure that leads to other security problems when you don’t press the “done” button and the guy behind you cleans you out.

  2. Joe

    Oct 11th, 2011

    You’re probably right on this one. The money should come quickly after though just in case people actually do forget about that.

    Especially since leaving your credit card usually causes less damage than leaving a pile of cash.

    Interesting though, didn’t know it worked that way in Israel.

    • Aaron

      Oct 12th, 2011

      Well, I believe the cost of error of forgetting the credit card is higher than leaving the cash, at least for the banks…

  3. Pradeep

    Oct 11th, 2011

    In India, there are ATMs in which you have to dip your card and take it out even before you type the PIN.

    • Chetan

      Jun 1st, 2016

      Yes, In india taking back your card first even before typing a pin code is more secure than any other flow.

  4. Edward

    Oct 11th, 2011

    Why don’t the cash and card come out at the same time in a close/similar location?
    so if u are going to take one of them, you would take notice another one and take both.

    • Aaron

      Oct 11th, 2011

      That might work as well. My objective was to illustrate how a small change in the flow, taking into account the user’s context, could make a big change in the user experience.

      • Edward

        Oct 13th, 2011

        ATM in Hong Kong give you back your card first, and the real story of me is that I forget to take the cash before. LOL

  5. Aaron Mathias

    Oct 11th, 2011

    Very good idea. As an ATM user you never really think about your train of thought. It’s nice to see that there are people out there commited to figuring these things out and making our user experience better.

  6. Shannon

    Oct 11th, 2011

    I’ve typically seen ATMs that just require a card swipe, which is another solution–the card never leaves your hand.

  7. Champs

    Oct 11th, 2011

    Lost cards are a major problem, but the card needs to be present throughout the transaction, or else you’ve left yourself open to an even bigger liability.

    At Wells Fargo ATMs, you feed in the card, which brings up the PIN entry. In addition to Enter, which accesses the main menu, a number of presets based on your transaction history are displayed on-screen. Should you tap the preset, your card is immediately returned (it beeps until you remove it), then cash is dispensed.

  8. ahasver

    Oct 11th, 2011

    in czech republic it is working as in israel…
    and we do have a problem with people forgetting their money in ATMs. it is estimated in millions per year. newer ATMs have already some sophisticated system of “swallowing” the money back after couple of seconds so that you won’t lose them

    so i really think that is just the whole concept of ATMs being user unfriendly :)

    ps: i forgot my money in ATM 2 times :)

    • Aaron

      Oct 13th, 2011

      My theory is that there are two main factors influencing our interaction with ATM’s:
      1. We start the interaction expecting something in return. We are there to get “something” and won’t leave empty-handed.
      2. During the interaction some users will have a strong desire to leave (due to different reasons).

      Putting these two factors together might help us understand why people leave without their money:
      1. There is a desire to get “something” as a result of the interaction.
      2. There is a desire to leave (oftentimes very strong).
      3. The desire to leave is inhibited until the user gets something.
      4. The user gets that “something” (money or credit card)
      5. The desire for “something” is satisfied (by the credit card or the money, whatever was dispensed first).

      Error Case:
      6.a. The desire to leave is no longer inhibited and the user leaves, leaving the second object behind (the money or credit card)

      Successful Case:
      6.b. The desire to leave is inhibited due to the realization (attention & memory) that there is something else to wait for
      7. The user waits and receives the second object.

      It’s not so different than getting out of the elevator on the wrong floor.

  9. Grace

    Oct 11th, 2011

    Very enlightening! Thanks Aaron, if only everyone thought like this!

  10. Peter Duerden

    Oct 12th, 2011

    Although I’m not a regular ATM user, in the UK it is usually card before cash. Most ATMs have bright flashing lights next to both the card and cash slots to indicate user interaction is required and some beep when the card is returned. Personally, I’ve never forgotten either as I’m usually very guarded, but given the choice I would prefer to “forget” the card rather than the cash. Modern chip-and-pin cards are reasonably secure and simple to cancel with a quick phone call. Cash is, of course, almost totally untraceable :)

  11. Daniel Rose

    Oct 12th, 2011

    The way it is done in Israel is an interlock or forcing function. IIRC it is also mentioned in Design of Everyday Things. It (physically) prevents incorrect actions being done.

    Similar ideas are microwaves, washing machines, etc. turning off when the door is opened while being on (or locking the door until turned off).

  12. Adam Kochanowicz

    Oct 15th, 2011

    Echoing what Shannon and others have said, I think having a credit card “dip” is a superior solution. Why should the card be held inside the machine in the first place?

    • Michael

      Nov 8th, 2011

      Hmmm…is it because the cards carry fingerprints??? Nowadays we can do transactions without physical contact at all with the smart chip. I’m forgetful and have lost my card twice in ATMs from foreign countries. I didn’t lose my passport though. With all the information carried on me surely in 2011 I should be able to use a universal face scan, fingerprint and passport (like I do at the airport) to extract MY money from any machine in the world, or at least a universal bank teller ala Western Union. Western Union is easy enough to scam because it relies on old fashioned systems like “photocopying” for security. Technology is typically adopted so slowly for fixing everyday annoyances that we don’t experience everyday improvements until Big Brother exploits it first.

  13. Kirill

    Feb 1st, 2012

    The problem is not for country this is one for bank’s ATM only. There are same problemls inside even one city from different banks.

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