Automatic teller machines may be convenient, but recent studies show they're not always as easy to use as bank officials might think.
In particular, many older adults find the machines intimidating or confusing, according to surveys and experiments conducted by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Georgia.
"When we brought older people in who had never used automatic teller machines before and started looking at their performance prior to training, they were correct only 20 percent of the time," said Dr. Wendy Rogers, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Georgia in Athens. "People don't want to make those kinds of errors with their own money."
Adults 35 and under are more than twice as likely to use automatic teller machines (ATMs) than those over 65, researchers say. Yet more than half of the non-users said they'd use the machines if someone showed them how.
Researchers hope such information will prompt banks to offer customer training and help ATM designers improve the machines, which came into use in the United States in 1970.
"The literature shows that older adults have problems with and do not use new forms of automated technology such as ATMs, video cassette recorders and computers, despite a strong desire to do so," said Richard Sit, a doctoral student conducting aging research at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. "In many cases, it would not be difficult or costly to design systems and training that take older adults into account and improve use for younger adults, as well."
Studies such as these, which seek to pinpoint how aging affects everyday activities, are being conducted by the Center for Applied Cognitive Research on Aging, a consortium of researchers from Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia and the University of Michigan. It is funded by the National Institute on Aging through 1998.
In the ongoing ATM studies, which began in 1993, researchers first analyzed surveys from 1,562 adults in Memphis and Atlanta. Subjects were asked demographic information, how much they used ATMs and other technology in general, and what problems or dislikes they associated with ATMs. Non-users were asked why they don't use ATMs.
ATM use was much higher for adults 18 to 35 (86 percent) than for those 65 and older (33 percent). The latter rate has risen significantly since a 1987 survey by other researchers showed only 15 percent of older adults were using ATMs.
The 1993 survey also showed that ATM users of all ages generally utilize more technologies, from microwaves to answering machines, and have more experience and are more comfortable with computers.
In follow-up interviews, non-users ages 61 to 81 said they didn't feel safe using ATMs, didn't need them because they do their banking during the day, preferred dealing with people and didn't know how to use the machines.
But nearly 63 percent said they'd be willing to use ATMs if they received training, especially in a setting free of the stress of people waiting behind them. Yet when Rogers randomly called 13 banks in Memphis, only two provided even cursory brochures.
"When we first started this project, we went to the banks and we asked, 'What kind of training do you give to people when they get an ATM card?' " Rogers said. "They said, 'Training? What training? It's so easy to use'."
But with studies showing otherwise, researchers are looking to see what types of training work best. In one recent study, 56 adults ages 65 to 80 who had never used ATMs received either a general overview of the machines, written instructions for performing transactions, written instructions and pictures of corresponding ATM screens, or hands-on, step-by-step training.
After testing on computer-based ATM simulators, those who received descriptions completed only 23 percent of their first five transactions correctly. Those who received on-line tutorials successfully completed 44 percent of their transactions and were better able to transfer their skills to a different machine.
An article summarizing these studies can be found in the January 1997 issue of Ergonomics in Design.
Because transaction costs are lower when customers use ATMs, banks can benefit by increasing their use. These recent studies suggest that banks should:
- De-emphasize the technical nature of ATMs and make them more
personal and interactive.
- Use anti-glare screens and provide better lighting.
- Increase security measures and make sure customers are aware of
them to increase confidence.
- Make text larger, improve feedback about errors and ways to correct them, and align buttons more closely with the options listed on the screen.
Understanding how aging affects one's ability to use any form of technology will be increasingly important as the median age of the U.S. population continues to rise. Predictions put the median age at 36 by the year 2000 and 42 by 2030, with those 65 and older making up 22 percent of the population in 2030.
Some people may think it's unimportant to study how older people learn technology, since younger generations will be increasing comfortable with it. But Dr. Arthur D. Fisk, a psychology professor at Georgia Tech, disagrees.
"The implication is that young people today are going to have no problem with technology in the future," said Fisk, who is Rogers' husband as well as her research partner. "Technology is advancing at a very, very rapid rate. We have to design technology appropriately from a human perspective, so that humans can interact properly, efficiently and safely with it."
In addition to Fisk and Sit, the research team at Georgia Tech includes Dr. Neff Walker, an assistant professor of psychology, and graduate students Pete Batsakes, Sherry Mead, Beth Meyer and Victoria Spaulding.
The Center for Applied Cognitive Research on Aging is one of six national Edward R. Roybal Centers for Research on Applied Gerontology, which were established in 1993 by the National Institute on Aging. Roybal is a retired, longtime member of the House of Representatives from California who championed aging research.
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VISUALS: Color slide of an older adult sitting at an ATM computer simulator; graphic comparing ATM use by older and younger adults.
WRITER: Amanda Crowell