UX outside screens: The story of 2 ATMs and a lonely dustbin

Reading Time: 4 mins approx.

Once upon a time, I went to an ATM in India to draw some money. There were two ATMs in this particular room and both were working just fine. I went to the ATM on the right and drew money, and the machine choked out my balance receipt. I took a glance at my receipt, habitually, crumbled it and was about to throw it into the dustbin. 

Only, there was no dustbin but a dirty heap of papers strewn around the ATM, on the right side. I looked at my raised right hand and made a connection. There were papers strewn all over the floor but interestingly, all the papers were on the right side. Not even a single paper was on the left. I glanced at the surroundings of the other ATM. Again, there was a pile of papers on the right.

“But there should be a dustbin around here, somewhere”, I thought and looked around and there it was, unnoticed on the lefthand side of the ATM on the left (let’s call this ATM, ATM-L and the other one ATM-R). 

I took the dustbin and placed it on the right side of the ATM-L. I picked up all the papers and put them in. Now at least the people coming to the ATM-L, would drop papers in the dustbin in the right way. 

After I went home, I decided to make this my little experiment. I took an A4 sheet and wrote down, “Please throw the receipts in the dustbin. Thank you for keeping the place clean” and put an arrow indicating the position of the dustbin. Now, I went back and stuck this on ATM-R, which didn’t have a dustbin.

The following night, when I was passing by, I checked and found the ATM floor clean, except for 2 sheets of paper that lay on the floor, again on the right. The next day, the floor was again, perfectly clean. 

I was thinking of the difference two actions made. Changing the position of a dustbin from left to right and putting up a simple paper notice. (I want to add, after a week, the authorities had placed one more dustbin to the right of ATM-R, which didn’t have one!). 

It hardly took 5 minutes to get everything done, but the effect seems to speak for itself. It reminded me of the Gutenberg diagram, an age-old theory proposed by Edmund C Arnold, (which is one of the reasons why the primary action button ends up sitting in the right corners in websites). According to this theory, the visible display area can be divided into four:

  1. A primary optical area (which is on the top left, where the eyes will automatically refocus).
  2. A strong fallow area (which is on the top right, and the user expects to have some continuation).
  3. Weak fallow area (which is on the bottom left, the blind portion of the page where all the unimportant stuff can go).
  4. Terminal area (which is on the bottom right, where the user is most likely to take action. Hence, if you place something here, it will get clicked or actioned more likely).

This principle is usually used to aid readability and user action while designing websites. Being a strong advocate of “Everything Is Design”, drawing parallels like this interests me (comes from reading too much Medium, I guess). When we walk into a scene like an ATM, to draw money, we are actually drawing up coordinates in space with our eyes, it is all one big frame. Correlating, the dustbin on the left would mean it is in the weak fallow area, while if you place it on the right, you have it within the terminal area. When the user completes his transaction and leaves, his eyes tend to throw a quick glance on the right as it is his terminal area. He will spot the bin quicker and is naturally drawn to use the right hand and dispose off the paper. Placing it on the left, would not only force him to strain and retrace but also going back to the fallow area is a movement that goes against the natural rhythm. Sometimes, it’s about playing to people’s convenience to get things done. Placing a dustbin in their favourable side, at the right elevation, can make them feel natural, above everything else.

Also, we are in a world where 70-90% of the people are right-handed, whose handedness (by one common theory) is attributed to the structure of the brain (stating that, the brain would club all the complicated activities in 1 hemisphere, like language and fine motor skills, which are considered the trickiest). Since most people have their language functions centred on the left hemisphere, they would most likely have the fine motor skills, or hand movements controlled in the left half too. Now, since one half of the brain controls the opposite half of the body, most people would find it easier and more natural to respond with the right hand. It would aid them if the placement of the bin was towards their right as it is the natural course of action after they take the paper from the machine with their right hand. (There has been a lot of debate on handedness. This is just one popular theory). People don’t want to stop and think and would prefer to just get it done and leave as soon as they can.

So, the bottom line is, when we are both visually and physically favouring a natural action in an obvious natural direction, it would be best if we place the actionable item in the same course or direction. Or in simple English, “Dustbins on the right-hand side, please ;)”

About the author

Arya is a passionate UX professional who hates to let problems remain problems. She works as a Senior Product Designer for Medicus AI, in Dubai, and was previously UX Designer at Apple+IBM. Everyday, she crafts delightful experiences for mobile and web, and is a fan of all things minimalistic. Stories (yours, your user’s, the plain old ones with morals), art, poetry, sciences and music spark great conversations with her.

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  1. That’s simple and strong. Good work Arya!!!

  2. You are an amazing story teller! Did not expect a trash can leading to a most important reference to readability.. no wonder people say your design is what you perceive in the day to day life.