Public Release: 

Older Adults Often Have Trouble With Automatic-Teller Machines; Banks May Need To Provide Help, New Study Says

University of Georgia

ATHENS, Ga. -- Ever talked back to an automatic teller machine?

Even the most technologically savvy bank customers sometimes have trouble understanding the maze of options available. Most people keep trying until they solve the problems, but for one group -- the elderly -- using ATMs often just doesn't add up.

A new study by a psychologist at the University of Georgia shows that banks may be losing the elderly as ATM customers and that education and machine redesign could be the best hope for bringing them back.

"Most systems designers and bank officers assume that ATMs are inherently easy to use and require no training," said Dr. Wendy Rogers. "But evidence shows that users of all ages have problems using ATMs initially when no training is provided, and that older adults have problems even after training."

The study, co-authored by Kristen Gilbert of Pepperdine University and Elizabeth Fraser Cabrera now of the Universidad Carlos III in Madrid, was published recently in the journal Applied Ergonomics. Gilbert and Cabrera were at the University of Memphis and Georgia Tech respectively when the study was done.

Automatic teller machines have been around for more than 20 years, and researchers have studied their use for some time. Still, very little work has been done on how well older adults use ATMs. Earlier studies established two major points: first, that fewer older adults use ATMs than younger adults and second, that older adults seem to have more trouble using ATMs. A study by Rogers in 1996, in which some 9000 individuals in Memphis and Atlanta were surveyed, indicated that only a third of the respondents over 65 used ATMs.

The current study was done in two parts. First, Rogers and her colleagues performed telephone interviews with 100 individuals, 50 from Atlanta and 50 from Memphis, of which 44 were males and 56 females. They ranged in age from 61 to 81. The purpose of the interviews was to question older adults about ATM usage, to assess age and sex difference within the sample and to collect information from non-ATM users about why they chose not to use the machines.

The second part consisted of detailed, structured interviews with 24 people from the pool of telephone interviews who were frequent, moderate or non-users of ATM machines. In this sample, there were 13 residents of Memphis and 11 from Atlanta.

"These studies were designed to allow the older adults to tell us what they knew about ATMs, whether or not they felt comfortable using them, and, for non-users, why they did not use ATMs," said Rogers.

As a result of the two phases of the study, Rogers and her colleagues were able to offer a number of suggestions regarding older adults and ATMs. Banks should consider ways to:

  • Improve lighting and use non-glare glass on the screens of ATMs in outdoor settings
  • Improve ways to correct errors, possibly by providing an "undo" function
  • Show options in an easier manner
  • Give customers more time to respond to options
  • Improve safety, possible by providing a "panic button," which could allow users to call for help or set off an alarm or cause a camera to take a picture at that moment

In addition, the surveys indicated that banks could find better ways of teaching people to use ATMs.

"We randomly questioned 13 banks in the Memphis metropolitan area and found that only two provided brochures that showed the user how to operate the ATM, and those were cursory at best," said Rogers.

Interestingly, non-users of ATMs said they primarily didn't use the machines because they simply didn't see a need for the service. Rogers said that this may be partly explained by their lack of knowledge about how the system works and their discomfort in having to learn it while others are waiting. Many of those interviewed were not aware of different options offered on ATM machines. Some 62 percent of non-users said they might use ATMs if they were provided training.

Non-users and users alike, however, stressed worries about safety in using ATMs, an issue banks have studied and worried about for years. Stand-alone ATMs are increasingly being placed in public areas such as malls where people may be around. (One interview subject said, "Well, it they put them [ATMs} in the church where I feel at ease now, I might go and use the teller. But I am not going to a teller after dark, after banking hours. [I'm not] interested in being robbed . . . It's not worth that to me -- I just write a check.)

The work was carried out by a grant under the auspices of the Center for Applied Cognitive Research on Aging, which includes researchers at UGA, Georgia Tech and the University of Michigan. This group is one of six national Edward R.G. Roybal Centers for Research on Applied Gerontology established in 1993 by the National Institute on Aging. Roybal is a retired U.S. representative who has championed aging research.

The research by UGA involves how older adults perform such activities as taking medication, driving and using computer technology.

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