Rethinking the choice architecture of ATM machines

Nudge blog reader Meicheng Shi counts herself among those who’ve left a bank card in an ATM machine. The problem, she says, is the sequence of actions. Living over in New Zealand for the year, Shi says the ATM choice architecture is smarter.

I always forget my debit card in the ATM. Why? My own absent-mindedness is partly to blame, but I like to believe the real culprit is the order of events at an ATM. Here’s what usually happens:

1. Insert debit card. The machine keeps the card for the duration of the transaction.
2. Enter amount of cash to be withdrawn.
3. ATM gives me cash.
4. ATM returns my card.

At step 3, I’ve achieved my objective: I’ve successfully withdrawn cash from the ATM. Therefore, cash in hand and mission accomplished, I walk away, forgetting that my card is still in the machine.

I’m currently living in New Zealand and the ATMs here switch steps 3 and 4–the machine returns my card before it gives me my cash. It’s a simple but ingenious nudge: I would never forget to take the cash (because that’s the reason I went to the ATM in the first place) and since the ATM returns my card first, it prevents forgetful people like me from walking away without their debit cards.

The benefit of the original order is that after you get your cash, the machine can ask about any additional transactions. However, my friend in the US tells me that some of the new ATMs ask about additional transactions, then return your card, and finally give you your money, thus combining the best of both worlds. Just another example of how context can help make psychological weaknesses (like forgetfulness) irrelevant.


  • John G Mooney

    Better yet, do like the best ATMs do and move step 4 to step 2–swipe your card and put it back in your pocket before even pressing any other buttons.

    • Bmarkos

      Not sure that would work, because presumably sometimes the machine needs to update your card regarding something you have done at the atm.

      • Aaron Andersen

        No, all the information is on the bank’s networked computers. The card doesn’t know your transaction history or balances. It’s just a way to tell the computer who you are.

  • Pierre-Louis Vezina

    the achitecture proposed by John is good as long as it allows u to do only one transaction per swipe… otehrwise people using the ATM after u might be able to access ur account if u forget to log off…

    giving u back ur card beofre ur money is fine as long as ur just doing one transaction… If u wanna do more than one its annyoing having to re enter ur card on code every time…

    a perfect system wd be:
    1. swipe
    2. select nb of transactions
    3. execute them
    4. u done

  • David Hardman

    I’m not sure this really counts as a nudge does it? I thought the whole concept of nudges / choice architecture was to try and sway people away from choice options that they are otherwise tempted towards, where the tempting option is not good for them, and where they know that the tempting option is not good for them. The ATM example is not really about head vs heart choice options; it’s just about forgetfulness, which is not the same thing. Of course, the example of ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ ATM machines is interesting, but nothing much different from the issues of design that Donald Norman talked about years ago in ‘The Psychology of Everyday Things’. For what it’s worth, the ATM machines here in the UK are exactly as you describe for NZ, and it had never occurred to me that they would be different anywhere else in the world. That said, I did once walk away with my card and forget to wait for the money, but I think I had a hangover that morning!

    • Nudge blog


      The book draws a distinction between the concept of choice architecture and the use of nudges. We are big fans of Don Norman’s book. In fact, you’ll see if prominently referenced in Chapter 5.

  • Leigh Caldwell

    An occasional drawback of the New Zealand 1-2-4-3 approach (which is also used in the UK): I once took my card back and walked away without the money!

    Fortunately someone very nice and honest came running after me with the cash. But this is indeed a much less common occurrence than forgetting your card in the 1-2-3-4 sequence.

  • Shogan

    My pet hate is when the ATMs in Ireland here ask you;

    1) Do you want a receipt? Yes please
    2) Are you sure you want a receipt – It’s not very environmentally friendly, you know? Yes please
    3) Here’s your money – please wait for your receipt.
    4) Sorry, we have no paper to print a receipt.

    • Moktarama

      In France, they tell you either upfront (best option IMHO) or at the same step than choosing if you want or not a receipt if they don’t have paper for a receipt. No environmental bullshit for now…

  • Trevor

    In the UK, where you get card first, then cash, some machines will ‘swallow’ your cash if you leave it there long enough, and debit your account.

  • Trevor

    I mean *credit* your account. Oops

  • Bmarkos

    I remember when they changed over to this system in the UK and I thought ‘Genius!…so simple’.

  • Dan “Tiger” Slade

    Pierre-Louis’ idea is the simplest and best.

    SWIPE the card, and then conduct your transaction.
    In this way, you keep the card in your hand the entire time, and immediately after the swipe, you can return it to your pocket.

    What are the vectors for fraud by which this method can be attacked? And are they significantly more costly for the bank to protect against when compared to the risk to the consumer of forgetting their card in the machine (or having it skimmed by a maliciously-cracked machine)?

  • Aaron Andersen

    I never thought I’d be shilling for Chase Bank, but… for quite a long time now at almost every ATM I’ve used, I’ve entered and removed my card before doing anything else. You can’t even continue until you remove the card. I’d (obviously wrongly) assumed that this was now the norm across ATM networks.

    • Nudge blog

      Really? Interesting. Maybe Chase bank needs to come up with a marketing campaign showing all the ways its services are “smarter.”

      • Aaron Andersen

        They’re really focused on the mobile stuff in their marketing. With their app, you can deposit a check by taking a picture of it with your phone. It’s sexier than smarter ATM design, though I get a lot more value out of the ATM design!

  • June-Ho Kim

    Great post Mei! The example of the ATM is an excellent microcosm of the larger issue of “systems thinking” and how parsing workflows into logical steps (and making sure people follow those steps) can improve outcomes.

    It actually reminds me of how, here at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Dr. Peter Pronovost has been leading the charge in organizing “checklists” that doctors and nurses can follow to make sure medical decisions are made properly and errors are avoided. (Atul Gawande wrote a good article about this in the New Yorker –

  • Matze

    I think ATMs are the “smart” way almost all over Europe… In Germany they also suck in your money again if you forget to take it (I don’t know if everywhere, but at least at many ATMs) without debiting your account.

  • Moktarama

    France (and most parts of Europe if not all) had the same system than in NZ for years (often with a beeping sound that keeps going until you take back your card, and sucking the money back if not taken) , it’s a bit strange to conceive that other countries did not swith to that architecture…

    Also, as another commentator pointed out, not sure it’s a nudge.

    Edit : OK, it seems I was repeating what all others had already written… sorry for that ;-)

  • Cm193sanjuan

    a La Vic romana, se une la Piedad y caridad

  • Ben Toombs

    Cash machines in the UK have worked like this for years. Stops you forgetting your card, but it didn’t stop the lady in front of me on the Strand in London yesterday forgetting her £50! (I found her and gave it back – she’d just realised…)

  • Anonymous

    The funds back if not taken) , it is kind of unusual to conceive that other countries did not swith to that architecture…

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