Designing for the goal state

Andra Cimpan
4 min readJul 28, 2019

No matter how much we strive for a cashless society, it hasn’t arrived just yet. It’s easy to assume that with all the debit and credit cards, cryptocurrencies and electronic-payment systems that are out there, physical cash will be in the future as eight-track cassette recorders are nowadays.

However, the prospect of a cashless society is not seen universally in positive terms. No matter how popular digital payments are, billions of people still rely on cash. That’s why the ATM machines remain an important, fundamental service to people and they will not go extinct any time soon.

The closure of physical bank branches is actually an opportunity for the smart ATMs, which will represent the ‘touchpoint’ for the clients and their money. Through innovation and additional functionalities that are being developed, the goal for the future is that ATMs will become a cheaper alternative to branches. Due to these improvements and to the advancements in the technology behind them, consumers are experiencing less of a need to visit a bank branch and speak with a teller or banker in person. The new machine will cover a full spectrum (or range) of additional features such as enabling customers to withdraw money using a QR code generated and pre-authorized on a banking app, or video banking, with customers being able to open an account directly on the ATM using a video channel and sign the necessary forms on the touch-screen.

Now, let’s take a look at the basic functionality that all the ATMs offer: cash withdrawal. When I first withdrew cash from Finland, from their interbank network Otto, something very strange happened: I almost forgot my card in the ATM. “How?” you might wonder. Well, there is a key difference between Otto’s ATMs and all of the others I have used before, in other countries.

The image below represents the two different approaches that are followed. In the first row, we have the steps of the process I was used to, from the bank in my home country — Romania, while the second one presents the steps of the process from the one in Finland.

We can clearly observe from this illustration that the “end state” is reached in different stages of the operation in these two cases. The “goal state” is the one that drives the user, so when that state is reached, the user concludes that the action is over so he can leave the ATM. The problem with the second approach is that we hit the “goal state” and we are not finished. There is still one more step to be performed — removing the card.

The act of withdrawing cash from an ATM is one action that is so familiar to us that we don’t really think about it. The first time that we initially decide how to achieve something — how to reach a “goal state” we think of each of the steps that we have to follow and the decisions that we have to make to reach that state. However, this is an exhaustive process to go through every time, so that is why our brain, once it has worked out a reliable process, tries to reuse the same process when it deals with a similar problem. Due to this repetition, we create patterns of behavior which become unconscious.

In Scientific literature, the term “mental model” covers this unconscious tendency to approach a problem in a particular way. A mental model is simply a representation of how something works. We cannot keep all of the details of the world in our brains, so we use these models to simplify the complex into understandable and organizable chunks.

Our mental sets are shaped by our past experiences and habits and they guide perception and behavior. We can see them as the thinking tools that we use to understand life, make decisions, and solve problems.

We build Mental Models of how the world works and apply them to new situations.

These mental models and ingrained patterns can pose challenges for designers when developing a product. Even a simple thing like changing the order in which the machine returns your card and presents your money can confuse users in a way that seems out of proportion to the size of the change.

When a familiar path towards the “goal state” is changed or our normal goal state occurs before the steps that would normally end our interaction with a service or a product, the result might confuse the user, leading to accidents.

Matching the mental model of users also has a significant impact on the bottom line of a product. By studying and understanding the mental model of users, we are given a shortcut when developing an experience which is intuitive and easy to follow. This, in turn, will result in a superior user-experience which prevents the users from making fatal mistakes.

Mental models can be challenged but careful thought must be put into making the transition to a new model as easy as possible for the user. Also, especially for machines or systems that are essential for a wide range of population, such as ATMs, this should be avoided as it might produce errors that could be avoided.



Andra Cimpan

User Experience Engineer that creates digital products 👩‍💻 with knowledge and passion💖