Co.Design

An ATM To Help Illiterate Populations Save Money

Pillar by NCR hopes to introduce the concept of banking to people in developing nations. But it also could make financial transactions less painful here in the U.S.

ATMs are challenging enough to use when you're visiting a different country. But imagine drawing money when you've never seen an ATM in your life, and compound that with the fact that you might not be able to read. NCR, a company that makes transactional technology like cash registers, has created a concept for Pillar, an ATM that can help people make simple financial transactions without having to navigate a complex, word-heavy interface.

The ATM strips down your typical banking experience into a few simple actions. It features a fingerprint biometric sensor, preset cash buttons, a cash dispenser, and receipt printer. To withdraw money, a user presses her thumb on the sensor and chooses the appropriate, color-coded button for the desired denomination. The physical pillar-like shape echoes the cylindrical design of mailboxes in India, where NCR conducted studies, and minimizes seams where people can pry the ATM open.

Using communities in Mumbai for their research, the team noted some striking behavioral differences in the way people acquired and stored money compared with the Western world. Some people had no pockets in which to keep their money, for example. NCR's solution needed to bring the concept of banking -- depositing and withdrawing money -- to people who were not familiar with the idea of putting their money somewhere and being able to retrieve it elsewhere.

Besides introducing banking to a population, Pillar could dramatically transform the financial security of residents of developing nations. If a person can't read or write, it's difficult to get a bank account, so when he needs money, he'll often have to negotiate a high-interest loan from someone in his community. An ATM like this could allow people to not only get money without strings attached, but also to get money quickly in a rural area, perhaps in an emergency situation. One imagines that you could also pay bills at this kind of ATM.

Of course, there's one step that might make the Pillar a bit less accessible than a traditional card and PIN number. Banks would have to pre-qualify their customers by fingerprinting them, but perhaps this could be easily accomplished when the person opens their account.

Even in places like the United States this kind of design has smart applications. An ATM with a streamlined interface means that people can use their mobile phones to perform transactions using near-field communication -- like Bluetooth for transactional data. "You can transfer data from a card or a device like a mobile phone to an ATM without inserting a card into the machine as you do today," says NCR's Jeff Dudash.

My dream would be that ATMs would not only be simplified in this way, but standardized, so you could use any ATM card, for any bank, at a fleet of these unbranded kiosks all over the country. It seems like it would save banks money if they could use this stripped-down version instead of producing and maintaining their own brands of ATMs (which these days, are rebranded so often they're constantly changing the signage!). I'm glad to hear NCR is testing the prototype in the United States as well as in international markets.

[H/T Scientific American]

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