Human-Centered Automated Teller Machines

I use an ATM almost every week, and no matter what bank I use, it has always been an irritating experience. Here we have a device used consistently by billions of people, that is making money to its proprietors, yet have failed to keep up with the advancing technology.

Despite being invented in the late 1960s, the only true improvements this beast have seen were 1) the adoption of ATM cards instead of paper cheques, and much later 2) the touchscreen.

Few years ago I read about IDEO’s work in this area and since then it has been impossible for me to get it out of my head. Here are few ideas on how I would improve an ATM, from walking to the machine to receiving my money.

  1. Malfunctioning/disconnected light indicator: many times I find an ATM, park my car, and walk to the machine only to find a dreadful “out of service” message. A light indicator would save people time.
  2. RFID/Touch-free ATM cards: why do I have to pull out my ATM card, gently slip it in, and hold my wallet until the end of the transaction? At the end of a transaction, both card and cash are given back to the user simultaneously. When this happens, I always find myself racing against time to put back my card inside my wallet and then take the cash before the machine eats either of them.
  3. Early network authorization: just after showing my card, and while I am entering my pin, the machine should connect to the bank and get meta data on my account, such as balance and permissible amount to withdraw. That way I do not have to wait 8-30 seconds doing nothing after I choose my transaction.
  4. No more choose-your-language screen: I told you my preferred language a billion times. At the very least, make an assumption while having a “change language” button in a corner.
  5. Offer my most popular transactions: I almost always withdraw SAR 400. I do not want to go through the many screens and enter that amount every time.
  6. Option for receipt only after the transaction: after I choose to withdraw money, the machine should not slow the transaction with yet another question “do you want a receipt for that?”. Instead, the option for a receipt should be available for 5 to 10 seconds after I receive my money. I have a feeling that the reason why we have so many receipts lying on the ground is that people are always in a hurry, pushing “next next yes” and therefore unconsciously answering that question. This also explain why some people ask for a receipt but never pull it out of the machine.

This is what I have so far. In retrospect I notice that all of my suggestions are time-saving improvements, which is probably a reflection of how I perceive an ATM machine should serve me: not by giving me health tips or impress me with new animations, but by giving me money when I need it and then getting out of my way as soon as possible.

A perfect experience would require exactly five pushes on the keypad: four for the pin, one for the common transaction, all in less than ten seconds.

Share your ideas in the comments!

Market Research for Fun & Profit

Note: this is a copy-paste of an email I sent to entrepreneurs-in-residence I’m mentoring these days. Please excuse the less-than-perfect formatting. If you have more sources/methods, please share in the comments.

One of the biggest challenges entrepreneurs face (especially in the Kingdom) is the lack of market intelligence to support their planning. I am sending you this email to share with you a list of resources and techniques for market research. I’ve been growing this list for quite some time and I hope you’ll find it as useful as I have in the past. You should skim through them quickly and drilldown on the ones that are relevant to you. Regardless of the sources you choose, try to keep an open mind and always seek out-of-the-box methods to support your decisions.

Saudi Government Entities

  1. Central Department of Statistics & Information (CDSI)
    General statistics such as imports, exports, inflation, population, growth rates, etc.
    www.cdsi.gov.sa
  2. Information & Communication Technology Commission
    Reports and studies on ICT sector
    www.citc.gov.sa
  3. Saudi Industrial Development Fund (SIDF)
    Industrial statistics and future outlooks
    www.sidf.gov.sa
  4. Ministry of Commerce and Industry
    Reports and statistics on factories and volumes
    www.mci.gov.sa
  5. Saudi Industrial Property Authority (MODON)
    Reports including cost of doing business in Saudi
    www.modon.gov.sa
  6. Saudi Arabia Monetary Agency (SAMA)
    Periodical reports with economic indicators
    www.sama.gov.sa
  7. Ministry of Health (MOH)
    Health indicators and statistics
    www.moh.gov.sa
  8. Port Authority
    Monthly and annual reports on imports and exports for each port
    www.ports.gov.sa
  9. Customs Authority
    Annual reports on imports and exports
    www.customs.gov.sa

Techniques for Software Startups

  1. Google Trend: effective/creative use of this toll will allow you to gauge interest in a certain topic, find correlations, and predict behavior. I find the data to be much more meaningful when filtered by country/region.
  2. Alexa.com: the go-to place to estimate website traffic and most popular urls. It can be most effective in determining the most popular websites in similar countries in order to find unexploited trends.
  3. App Annie: best place to look up traffic on mobile apps from different platforms.
  4. Facebook Ads: good to measure niche markets.
  5. CrunchBase.com: good to look up performance and fund raising of similar ventures in different markets

Brainstorming in an Untapped Market

Those who know me enough, know that my day job these days is to launch a first of a series of best-in-class business incubators, which will be within the campus of KFUPM.

This morning I met with a number of students who were eager to join our incubator and make big things happen, have the capability and drive, but lack the idea or direction. I find that to be exceptionally interesting given the untapped market that Saudi Arabia represents.

We live in a country that has the second highest smartphone penetration rate globally and the strongest purchasing power in the region. Add to this the weak infrastructure, unique cultural challenges, and sickeningly traditional business models. What you get is a goldmine for creative IT entrepreneurs.

Here are few hints I hope to inspire you:

  1. Payment Systems: the Kingdom have exceptionally difficult to manoeuvre regulations with regards to payment solutions. We all know of the effect which PayPal had on home businesses. The opportunity here is to build a similar infrastructure with the support of decision makers and banks, and that which is less dependent on credit cards, but a combination of debit accounts and smartphones.
  2. White Labeled Solutions: small businesses always seek to present themselves in the most professional way and in a most cost effective manner. There might be a demand to develop a white-labeled solution for events, posters, catalogues, brochures, etc.
  3. Accounting Solutions: small businesses in the Kingdom rely on one of two brands of software (cashier) systems. They suck big time. These systems are super expensive (the software alone is SAR 6K and with the hardware goes up to SAR 30K). They created a monopoly in the region because they are among the few which have Arabic interfaces. The recent regulations to Arabize receipts boosted this sector by insane magnitudes. These systems offer no intelligence reporting and almost none of them leverage the power of the cloud.
  4. Big Data: this is an area that none AFAIK have capitalised on in the region. There is an enormous amount of unstructured data which can be mined for intelligence or as an inventory. Checkout the databases of GulfCloud, Zawya, and Kooora. These are traditional examples of businesses which anchored themselves as an authoritative source for data. The challenge here is to do something similar but in a less traditional way: think of the social interactions, car traffic, seasonal events, etc.
  5. Augmented Reality: there’s a big opportunity here to be leveraged for real estate, regional tourism, education, life style, etc. Think of Google Glasses; how will this impact our daily lives?
  6. Niche Markets: what are the pains and gaps faced in niched communities, such as university students? They have users with similar interests and in close perimeters. They present opportunities for craigslist-like markets, fiverr, and other peer-to-peer models.

The next person to tell me of his plan to create a real estate website will be stabbed with a spoon. Same goes for car-selling websites.

Having the drive and passion is %90 of the equation, however, choosing the right problem at the right time is also a make-it-or-break-it factor. Think outside the box and study the models out there.

If you have other ideas you’d like to share with the aspiring entrepreneurs, leave a note in the comment.

Naming For Ownership

In software architecture, one of the best advice you will be told is to name things properly. A golden rule towards maintainable systems.

The craftsmen out there will plead you to fight the urge to name your class a “manager” or “utility”. These names tend to mask objectives within black boxes. The code becomes less readable and the exact functionality will require unnecessary digging. Instead, use actions for functions with sanely consistent prefixes (such as get/set/read/write etc.) and nouns for classes to reflect objects and models.

Same goes for divisions within companies: whenever you have a “Support Group” you will find people stepping on each others toes, unclear accountability, and an escalating need for meetings to define roles and responsibilities.

A good name for a sub-organization should be a reflection of its KPIs. If a group is expected to train customers, that group would be called “Curriculum & Training Group”. If it was to acquire customers it should be called “Customer Engagement Group”, and so on.

Unclear accountability can be dreadful to companies. Always curate names around metrics and consider lack of ownership as a sign of unclear purpose.

Programming For The Masses

Programming has for so long been a craft for the few. In the late 1950s, scientists used to program using front panels where operators poke a board of lamps and toggle buttons. We now refer to that method of programming as a 1st Generation Programming Language.

The crave for more practical means gave birth to 2nd Generation Programming Languages (assembly) which allowed us for the first time to type on a keyboard rather than turn a knob. Around the same time, punch cards played a big role in storing data and NASA are known for operating their first lunar landing missions with a heaping stacks of these cards.

As years progress we started to tackle more complicated problems, and for that we invented the 3rd generation of the craft, riding on elaborate philosophies of object oriented design, encapsulation, and code separation.

But what’s next? As a new Android user, I find my self overwhelmed by the power of the OS and apps. Most impressive of these apps is Tasker.

Tasker allows you to extend the capabilities of your Android phone or tablet by “programming” tasks which will be executed by user-defined events. It allows non-programmers to create scripts by choosing commands and triggers from a pre-defined set, all by tapping a screen; no editor, just icons. This, in my opinion, is the first meaningful step towards a Forth-Generation Programming Language.

How’s that real-time syntax checker going for you?