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How to lose your credit card due to automatic user behavior

September 24, 2015

As I mentioned in the posts before, I spent the summer in Canada this year. In contrast to Germany, people there seem to pay everything directly with their credit card. Having a German credit card means that I have to pay an extra fee every time I use the card in a shop or restaurant outside Germany. But I can get money from every ATM worldwide without any additional costs, so when I was in Canada, I paid in cash all the time.

Missing card

There was a nice bank close to my apartment and one day it was time again to get a little cash refill. As I was standing at the ATM, I noticed that I didn’t have my credit card with me.

I was getting a bit nervous (or rather very nervous) because I always put the card in my wallet. I tried to stay calm (more or less successfully) and thought that I certainly had put it somewhere in my apartment (I also could already hear the devilish laugh of the mean guy or girl who was probably using my cute little card at this exact moment!). Back in the apartment I searched everywhere (double and triple), but at a certain point I had to face the fact, that MY CREDIT CARD WAS GONE! AHHHH…


The first thing I did was to check my account online. Seeing that the card hadn’t been used made the panic fade away. After taking a deep breath I tried to reconstruct when I used it the last time and where I might have put it. I remembered using it a few days before at the same bank around the corner. I even had the receipt of the transaction and told my boyfriend that this meant that I definitely had the card there and must have put it back in my wallet. I was pretty sure that I hadn’t used it afterwards, so where was that damn card?!

At that point my boyfriend mentioned something about the user flow at a Canadian ATM that I hadn’t noticed before and suddenly I knew exactly how I lost my credit card!

How it happened

The procedure at an ATM in Germany differs slightly from that at a Canadian ATM (or at least the ones we used in Canada). 

This is how a German ATM works:


As I mentioned in the beginning, it is more common to pay in cash in German stores. That means I regularly get money from an ATM. Having experienced the user flow so often, it has subconsciously become an automatic procedure to me. Recently I read a book about habits¹ and the author explains that a habit is “an action that you take on a repeated basis with little or no required effort or thought”.

He also describes chains of habits. This means that one action can automatically trigger a following action. In my case, after the moment when I usually take the money and put it in my wallet, I automatically turn around and leave the bank. I developed this behavior over the years, knowing that the procedure at the ATM is finished after receiving the money and I can happily leave the bank. 

Now, this is the procedure at a Canadian ATM (at least the ones I used):


There are just two steps swapped when compared to a German ATM – you get the money first and then you get your credit card. But having the habit to turn around and leaving the bank directly after receiving the money can result in forgetting to wait for the credit card. And that is exactly what happened to me!


I was really impressed how automatic and subconscious my user behavior at an ATM became. Usually I am very careful when it comes to procedures involving personal documents or financial things. But this process I handled without any thinking, like a well-trained dog. On the one hand it is quite powerful to save time and effort by having routines but on the other hand slight changes or details in a user flow can easily be missed and have a big impact.

So, what could help me to avoid forgetting my card at the ATM?

Changing the user flow

In the beginning I thought that people in Canada got used to the user flow of their ATMs as easy as I got used to the one at German ATMs. They also experienced it so often that they automatically take their card after they received the money. But then I was wondering whether the flow where you receive the card first and the money afterwards (flow A) is more intuitive and therefore easier to adopt.

I would say that when you want to take out money from an ATM, getting the money is your goal and the credit card is a tool to get it. I think during the whole process you focus more on the goal than on the tool. You consider the process finished when you achieve your goal. I don’t think you would leave the ATM before you receive the money, because your mission isn’t accomplished yet. So, if you follow user flow A (common at German ATMs) you will probably not forget your tool (the credit card), because you receive it before you get the money.


What might happen in user flow B is that the moment you achieve your goal, you might forget about the tool (the credit card), because you consider the action done and focus on a new action or goal like leaving the bank and spending your money on something nice.


Therefore it could be better in general to receive the credit card (the tool) before getting the money (your goal).

If anyone has more information on this or even knows whether there is a study about this, please let me know! I would love to learn more about this topic.

Giving clear instructions

If you don’t want to change the process, it would certainly help to show an explicit note that attracts the user’s attention and gives him or her clear instructions about how to act next. This can easily be done on the display right after the user finished entering his or her data.

I experienced that at an ATM of a different bank. They showed a screen with explicit and clear information about the the following steps.


Paying attention

All in all it is definitely useful to have habits that run automatically, because they spare us from too much thinking or too many decisions. Nonetheless, as users we also should be focussed on processes that have became a routines to us. We have to be aware of what we are doing in the present moment and not just click or act like a brainless robot.

And where was my credit card?

There is one thing that most ATMs in every country are handling the same way. If you don’t take your credit card after the transaction, it is withdrawn back into the ATM after a certain period of time.

That’s what happened with my card. And as soon as I remembered that, I went back to the bank and spoke to a (very friendly) assistant there. She had a box with (a lot of!) lost and withdrawn cards and mine was among them. YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!



Update (September 29, 2015)

There is an interesting discussion about this blogpost on Hacker News.




1. The book I read is “Superhuman by Habit” written by Tynan.

All pictures and graphics in this post are taken or created by me. Please be so kind and ask before using them.

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6 Discussion to this post

  1. C H Forsyth says:

    This is a common example of post-procedural error in user interface literature, and one well-known fix for it is to change the order as you say. (It’s mentioned in http://csjarchive.cogsci.rpi.edu/1997v21/i01/p0031p0061/MAIN.PDF for instance.)I’ve several times come across cards just left behind when in the US.

  2. James Arlen says:

    The flow makes sense for not your use case.

    When ATMs first showed up in Canada (mid-80s) and the Interac alliance got started, the card being held until the end of the flow made sense.

    At that time, user behavior at the (human) teller was rarely a single transaction. On a bi-weekly basis, I would make a deposit (pay cheque) and withdrawal (gimme cash!) in the same visit. This pattern was extended to the ATMs. If you were using a Canadian debit card, it would’ve asked you after your withdrawal of you wanted another transaction (Y/N). This often required re-reading the mag stripe and therefore it made sense for the machine to keep the card.

    Now, with the predominance of direct deposit and Interac (it is far more likely that a Canadian is paying with debit rather than credit) transactions, many (most?) Canadians aren’t using ATMs in the pattern that drove the original flow. (In your terms, the “goal” was “complete potentially multiple banking transactions.”)

    Maybe it is time to change the flow, but at least now you know there was a reason for it. 🙂

    • jenny says:

      Thanks for this information! Now I remember that many years ago I also did more than one action within one process at an ATM and that the machine had to read the card for each action and therefore kept it till the end.
      But it is certainly time to change the flow so it will suit the process that is more common nowadays.

  3. Rui says:

    The order of the workflow can and is not only be based into practical matters, but also in the local culture and the value you give to money. I lived in a country where the minimum salary and the salary of most people was very low, and there it made perfectly sense to give the cash before the card.

    • jenny says:

      I am not sure whether I understand your comment correctly, but it seems that within your described situation the user would focus even more on the money. In that case Flow A (first card and then cash) would make even more sense, because the user will certainly wait till he or she finally can take the money?

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