Crave Talk: Should user interfaces cater for the intoxicated?

User-interface designers have made a mistake -- they've been catering for the sober. As a Croatian man discovered recently, cash machines can be extremely unforgiving when it comes to drunken fumbling

Chris Stevens
3 min read

Why is the button that connects your mobile phone to a premium-rate Internet service twice as big as the button that answers calls? Why do you go to the 'Start' button in Windows to shut down? Why do you drag disks to the 'Trash' to eject them in Mac OS? And, most importantly, why did 51-year-old Croatian, Vladimir Mesic, climb on to a litter bin and urinate across an ATM that had swallowed his bank card?

The answer in most of these cases is: bad interface design. The answer in the last case is: alcohol. Apparently Mesic was "really annoyed" because he "couldn't buy any more beer" after incorrectly entering his pin multiple times.

It's easy to blame the drink, but some would argue that cash machines should be designed to cater for intoxicated fingers. In our unofficial poll, on a Saturday night in London 90 per cent of people using ATMs can barely stand, let alone recall and key-in a four-digit pin code.

As the nation becomes progressively more intoxicated, obnoxious and anti-social, designers need to pay more attention to a much overlooked but highly profitable section of society: the drunk. While fruit machines cater for them with bold buttons, flashing lights, colour and sound, the humble ATM remains sombre and impenetrable -- a cold-hearted lawyer, silently mocking the drunk as he fumbles and swears.

Catering for the chemically altered using technology is nothing new. Bars often play loud music to make rational conversation difficult -- driving the patrons to buy more drink, served in large, easily gripped glasses. Ravers have long been sold technologies that have no practical purpose outside the realms of psychoactive revelry: glow sticks, plastic dummies (to avoid the damaging teeth-grinding associated with amphetamines) and those battery-powered t-shirts that spell out messages in an LED dot-matrix.

Why, then, is it that our ATMs are apparently so heedless of the common drunk? Don't the banks want business from society when it's at its most vulnerable to excess spending? There's an ATM across from the station in Finsbury Park that is placed literally 2m above the surface of the pavement -- a kind of Mayan temple atop an insurmountable staircase. It's hard enough for an athlete to reach it, let alone the walking bottles of vodka that careen around the streets there.

If you do manage to reach the keypad of this wondrous cash dispenser, you have to contend with small buttons -- you can imagine Vladimir needing to climb on top of more than a litter bin to urinate across this machine. Perhaps it's the least-vandalised ATM in London -- our research budget doesn't stretch to confirming this.

Other ATMs that drive even the sober to madness include the one in St Katharine Docks, Tower Hill. This is the most boring cash dispenser in the world, requiring that you wait at least a minute between transactions. Once you're granted access to the hallowed beast, you're offered a paper receipt for every stage of the interaction. There are also pointless tasks involved, like pressing enter after your pin, as if you might want to enter all four digits simply for the joy of pressing the buttons. Then there's the wait for the cash to be counted…

Bizarrely, an acrylic monolith sits above this Tower Hill ATM. A placard explains that this is an unused prop from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey -- a film that broadly explores the evolution of man. The ATM beneath is a cruel reminder of how close we still are to our Neanderthal roots -- you'll often see grown men beating their arms against the keypad and howling. -Chris Stevens