Crossing a computer with a bank

In Alan Cooper’s book about interaction design, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, he asks, “What do you get when you cross a computer with a bank?” The answer: “A computer!” He then proceeds to describe the ridiculously horrible interaction design of most ATMs.

This morning, I experienced it for myself. “You selected English. Are you sure you wish to proceed in English?” it asked me. I went through the typical questions – type of account, dollar amount, etc. – and laughed as the interaction reminded me of Cooper’s rants about ATMs. Here are a few excerpts from the book:

Whenever I withdraw cash from an ATM, I encounter the same sullen and difficult behavior so universal with computers. If I make the slightest mistake, it rejects the entire transaction and kicks me out of the process.

The ATM has rules that must be followed, and I am quite willing to follow them, but it is unreasonably computer-like to fail to inform me of them, give me contradictory indications, and then summarily punish me for innocently transgressing them.

This behavior – so typical of computers – is not intrinsic to them. Actually nothing is intrinsic to computers: they merely act on behalf of their software, the program. And programs are as malleable as human speech. A person can speak rudely or politely, helpfully or sullenly. It is as simple for a computer to behave with respect and courtesy as it is for a human to speak that way. All it takes is for someone to describe how.

I’m sure some of the people who use the ATM are stupid and incompetent, but nobody – not even stupid and incompetent people – likes to be treated like he is stupid and incompetent.

Imagine if an ATM showed you your account balance and maximum withdrawal amount, its fee, and the amount you’ve requested SIMULTANEOUSLY along with the ability to easily go back and forth within the system without having to cancel everything, reinsert your card, and start over whenever you want to change something. Novel!

As Cooper points out so well, there is nothing intrinsically surly and uncooperative about ATMs – it’s all in the design. Of course, the same is true for all computers, computerized devices, and websites. In tech industries, it’s common to hear complaints about the computer illiterate, the “stupid and incompetent” users of our products, when it’s our responsibility to make products that aren’t designed so only the hardiest and most computer-frustration inured among us can use them.

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