I read the first few chapters of Donald Norman’s book, The Design of Everyday Things (1988). He writes about how good design doesn’t need words or labels or instructions for how to use the object. Well-designed objects are easy to interpret and simple to understand, and they usually contain visible clues as to their operation. In other words, visibility matters — the correct parts must be visible, and they must convey the correct message. Also, Norman imparts that it is important to create mappings between what you want to do, and what appears to be possible — this is known as using natural signals. According to this “natural design” approach, affordances and constraints of objects (the perceived and actual properties that determine how a thing could possibly be used) provide strong clues as to the operations of things. Norman says, “A device is easy to use when there is visibility to the set of possible actions, where the controls and displays exploit natural mappings.” And last, but not least, it is very important to send the user feedback (information about what action has actually been done and what result has been accomplished).

I also read the first part of Norman’s book, titled Attractive Things Work Better (2002), which argues that aesthetics really do matter a great deal in product design. Simply put, attractive things work better because positive affect makes people more tolerant of minor difficulties and more flexible and creative in finding solutions to make it work. Design matters, and which design depends upon the occasion, and the context, and the mood. I really agree with this notion that people’s mood affects the way in which they use objects. And in particular, people’s emotional reactions to objects MATTER, not just the usability of an object, because when we feel good, we overlook design flaws. Norman says, “Good design means that beauty and usability are in balance.”

After reading Norman’s writings about good product design, I was compelled to go out in New York City and look for a piece of interactive technology in public that has either really good design, or really bad design. Inevitably, I found a piece of technology that has really poor design: the security door card reader at Bank of America’s automated-teller machines.

(Of course, I do freely admit that I will take ANY opportunity to slam Bank of America.)

The security door card reader is a device aimed to control people’s physical access to Bank of America’s automated-teller machines. I observed people using four different Bank of America ATM card readers in various locations in the East Village, the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and in Brooklyn. Based on my observations, this device seems to do its job a little too well by preventing BofA customers from entering the lobby when they want to get to an ATM, and in other cases, it is not effective at all in preventing non BofA card holders from entering the lobby. It was clear from my observations that it takes the average person 3 attempts to insert his/her bank card into the card reader before learning the correct insertion technique and thus gaining access to the ATM lobby.

I made a short video highlighting some of this device’s design flaws:

Bank of America ATM card readers – Usability Study from Suzanne Kirkpatrick on Vimeo.

When a BofA customer walks up to the ATM lobby door, it’s not immediately clear to the customer that he/she even needs to swipe a bank card in order to pass through the door. There aren’t any appropriate clues on or around the door at eye level which indicate that a customer must swipe a card to enter. The card reader is usually located off to the left or right of the door, and not at eye level. It is only by habit or by watching someone else enter the ATM lobby that a first-time customer would immediately know to swipe his/her bank card.

Bank of America ATM card reader

Poorly designed card reader

Furthermore, the electronic card reader itself is extremely poorly designed – it only unlocks the door if a customer swipes the card on a certain side, in a certain direction. The position of the card reader doesn’t provide enough constraints to limit the 4 possible ways of swiping a card. “The set of possible operations,” as Norman says, “is not constrained by the position or design” of the card reader.

In thinking about a better design, I wonder why isn’t the card reader positioned horizontally, instead of vertically? Why isn’t the card reader modeled after the design of other card readers that people are already accustomed to using in stores at check-out registers? Or…why have a card reader at all ?? Positioning a card reader outside of an ATM lobby is unsafe as it requires a customer to stop and take out his/her wallet, search for the correct card, figure out which side to swipe, figure out in which direction to swipe it, wait for the light to turn green and the door to unlock….all the while, the customer’s person and wallet and card are left out in the open vulnerable to theft. It is ridiculous! A retina or fingerprint security scanner would reduce confusion about swiping direction, and it would speed up efficiency in the interaction, and increase security.

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