Humanizing the ATM

Banking: Companies try to strike balance between efficiency and personality.

April 24, 2003|By Dennis Watkins | Dennis Watkins,COLUMBIA NEWS SERVICE

"How may I help you?" The question lights up a blue screen. The customer gives his instructions, and punches in a request for a withdrawal. "I'm working on it, just a moment, please," the screen replies. After rapidly shuffling out a few $20 bills, a final message appears, "It's always a pleasure to serve you."

This brief exchange would be considered unremarkable - if the bank teller had not been a computer. Automated teller machines from Citibank now feature a friendlier and more human-like message script than ATMs of the past. Other banks and ATM makers are following suit.

"We do try to have text that sounds a little more conversational," said Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Citibank.

The friendlier ATM is part of a recent trend in the field of human-computer interaction. Creating a machine that is simple and pleasant to use raises important questions. How much informality will people tolerate in a computer, particularly one that dispenses money? How well do people accept computers that display some amount of artificial intelligence?

The first ATMs built more than 15 years ago may have been technological innovations, but were not designed to be appealing to the customer. "When they first did the text on the ATM screen, it wasn't a thing of beauty," said Rob Evans, the director of industry marketing at NCR, the nation's largest self-service hardware manufacturer. "They weren't designed with the user in mind."

Some self-service hardware builders have experimented with audio devices. Talking ATMs, self-checkout cashiers and telephone switchboards are used increasingly around the country, but most service computers still use on-screen text messages.

The problem with original designs, said Evans, was that many computer programmers knew more about computers and less about people. As a result, software for ATMs and personal computer programs could be awkward, cryptic or even incomprehensible. Even current Microsoft Windows users may be perplexed when faced with a sudden "Invalid Page Fault" or "Fatal Exception 0E."

Consumer product designers want to avoid this kind of confusion. "It has to be a design that's what we call intuitive and self-evident," said Evans.

Scientists at dozens of human-computer interaction laboratories at universities and private companies worldwide have spent years trying to understand the complex dynamic between man and machine.

An experiment recently conducted at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute revealed that some people may still be unable to accept a human-like computer. In the experiment, the subject had to sit at a computer and work on a database. The subject's actions on the computer were monitored by a researcher sitting at another computer. Then, the researcher would simulate a computer offering advice on how a person should perform a task. This advice appeared on the subject's screen in the form of pop-up windows.

"People are, of course, used to a help panel that comes up when they carry out an illegal action and it's kind of bland," said John Carroll, director of the Center for Human-Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech. "But generally, help systems don't criticize our plans or our goals."

Carroll found that the experiment provoked strong reactions from the subjects. First, a person would become very frustrated with the computer for making value judgments on the subject's methods.

But despite this aggravation, the subject would then begin to assume that the computer was smarter than it actually was. When the computer invariably could not measure up to the subject's raised expectations, the subject would become even angrier.

"Once you add a little bit of human-like behavior, people don't have a good way of drawing the line," said Carroll. "This is a hazardous, hazardous area for user-interface design."

Carroll's experiment is, in a way, similar to an ATM prototype used five years ago by two Australian banks, National Australian Bank and Westpac Banking Corp. The ATMs featured a cartoon of a grandmotherly woman called "Granny." The character would speak in an Australian accent so thick, said Evans of NCR, that even Australians found it offensive.

In addition, the ATM would chide customers as withdrawing too much money. The prototypes were met with hostility from bank customers.

"The challenge there is to come up with tools and methods and language that is not perceived as invasive, or overbearing and offensive," said Evans.

Carroll warned that a polite ATM may not have the effect on customers that banks hope for. "People may see it as cloying or effusive or faking an intelligence that's not really there," he said.

Ben Shneiderman, author of the upcoming book Leonardo's Laptop: Human Needs and New Computing Technologies, agreed that people are rarely charmed by a computer. "People don't want friendly," said Shneiderman, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, College Park, "they want fast and gets the job done and gets them out of there."

Research performed by both Citibank and NCR showed that most customers are more concerned about the location of an ATM - how close it is to their home or workplace or stores. But when there are many ATMs at a single location, or within a small area, someone may go to the machine that is more pleasant.

"You have the hard-and-fast, very scientific stuff, and you balance that with consumer research," said Evans, adding that the greatest example of consumer design was a door. "No one ever gave you an instruction manual on a door."

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