Worshiping a False God

A lot of machines are designed with Western social context. Due to forces of commerce these machines are mindlessly imposed on non-Western-societies. Automation was born in Western society. Mindset there is ready to adopt to the way of machines. India, a sixth of the world’s population, doesn’t fit in the same mold.

Toilet seats are the prime example for this. However, I will focus on a more modern machine, the Automatic Teller Machine – ATM.

Indian banks have adopted ATM machines in a big way. As such soon they will stop teller services for anyone withdrawing less than INR 5,000/- (~USD 100/-).

Most Indians don’t have bank accounts. Of those who have, most never have total balance of INR 5,000/-. That means virtually entire lower middle class will be served only through ATM in next a few weeks.


There lies the rub. A massive part of Indian lower middle class is functionally illiterate. They just can’t operate ATM’s.  If you are like me – who looks like an easy to approach, trustworthy, literate person to a illiterate, self-respecting man/woman – you are invariably asked help for withdrawing money from their card.

    1. They typically want you to swipe their card, then
    2. They enter the PIN, then
    3. They want you to navigate buttons (that is the scariest part BTW) and then
    4. They want you to enter the amount.

At times, they also want you to read their account balance.

At lot of times, I have helped people in navigating ATM in a language that I don’t know! As the readers of this blog know, I can read a huge bunch of alphabets. So I just read aloud the screen and they node on the button they want to press.

My Western friends would’ve fainted by reading this blatant breach of privacy [and probable breach of security] they allow – but in Indian context, it is typical. There isn’t a single case in India wherein a literate man took advantage of ATM related ignorance of an illiterate man.

If we limit our discussion to only such a situation, I am still happy. There is no alternative to literacy in modern world. Even if this inconvenience, risk and shame forces people to get literate, I am for it.


The bigger trouble arises on the first of every month. Indian salaries and payments are synced on this day. As India is still a cash driven economy, ATM’s see huge lines. Frequently as long as 50 people.

That is where this illiteracy and general ineptness with machines become painful. A lot of people fumble around for just inserting the card right. There is a huge line behind them. They stand in a corner of ATM room, repeatedly trying their luck with ATM and with people. They spend long time, even bear a lot of snubs, hold space, breach privacy and endanger security of literate users and themselves – and delay the entire crowd behind them.

If you don’t believe it, listen to this.  Three months back, I helped SIX such people in a row in Belathur ATM of State Bank of India! I actually then held a mini-class to them with permission of the rest of the line. I had to run that mini-class in four languages.

Their biggest problem was this incompatible way of inserting cards. “Oh, but Kadugodi ATM a kilometer down, needs card to be inserted the other way!” Kadugodi ATM belongs to Canara Bank.

VERY INTERESTINGLY, THERE IS EXACTLY ONE WAY OF INSERTING THE CARD RIGHT – AND THAT VARIES FROM ATM TO ATM. At times, even techies like us are confused. Now imagine a plight of kinds of people I just described above.


Shame is to us, the product designers.

Why should there be only one card reader, in only one way? These readers don’t cost more than USD 50/- That means with just additional cost of USD 150/- we can put four sensors.

Users just push the card in the slot in any orientation, the machine will read! Why do PEOPLE need to worry about the orientation of the card? Why can’t the machine worry about it?

USD 150/- is one teller’s one week’s salary. Is that additional cost not easily amortizable?

This is where engineers and designers worship machine and not man.

I say, let us stop worshiping a false God. Machines are supposed to help man function better and not vice-verse.