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Smart Cards: The Forgotten Customers

Dr John Gill
February 1995

Self-service terminals are being used by the general public for an increasing range of applications. The most sophisticated terminal in widespread use is the Automated teller Machine (ATM), but ticket selling machines for public transport now offer a bewildering number of choices to the user. To handle this increased number of choices, the terminal often incorporates a sophisticated interface which can cause problems for users who are elderly or have a disability. However some of these terminals give the potential for modifying the interface to meet the needs of the individual user.

In many countries, anti-discrimination legislation is being considered, which will require service providers to make their services accessible by people with disabilities. In the USA, the Americans with Disabilities Act makes specific mention of ATMs. In the UK, it is likely to become an issue in the next general election, with no party wishing to appear to be against people with disabilities.

In geographic Europe, the estimated number of people with impairments is:


Wheelchair user 2,800,000

Cannot walk without aid 45,000,000


Cannot use fingers 1,100,000

Cannot use one arm 1,100,000

Reduced strength 22,500,000

Reduced co-ordination 11,500,000


Profoundly deaf 1,100,000

Hard of hearing 80,000,000


Blind 1,100,000

Low vision 11,500,000

Speech and language

Speech 2,300,000

Language 5,600,000

Dyslexia 25,000,000

Intellectually impaired 30,000,000

To select a preferred interface, the user could simply press a button or select from a menu on the screen. However this is unlikely to find favour with service providers if it significantly increases the time taken to undertake the transaction, but it may be viable for simple operations such as increasing audio amplification on a public telephone. For applications such as a cash dispenser, the user’s preferences could be stored on a central computer and implemented as soon as the PIN (personal identification number) has been entered.

However another method would be to store the information on the card. With a magnetic stripe card there is very limited spare capacity for storing this information, but this method has been used successfully for storing the user’s preference for language (eg English or French). A smart card has fewer restrictions on storage capacity so appears to be ideal for this purpose, as long as some international standard is agreed for the coding of this information on the card.

In the ideal world, the user would be able to select and store their preferred interface anytime they use the card at a terminal. However practical constraints may restrict this choice to being at the time of issuing the card.

Preferred customer verification method:

  • Personal identification number (PIN) - this can be a problem for people with dyslexia since they may remember the correct digits but in the wrong order.
  • Fingerprint
  • Hand geometry
  • Voice recognition
  • Dynamic signature verification
  • Retinal scan
  • Visual recognition of the user (eg face)

Although some of these biometric methods are used in specialised application areas, it is likely to be some years before they are used on an ordinary cash dispenser.

Preferred input:

  • More time - this is particularly important for many elderly persons. On a public telephone, this could involve storing the number being dialled and then sending it at a press of function key.
  • Keyboard only - for instance, a blind person may prefer not to use a touchscreen.
  • Touchscreen only - this may be easier for people who are not used to operating keypads.
  • Speech recognition - this may be restricted to giving basic instructions to the terminal.

Preferred operation:

  • Reduced functionality - this is for limited use of the terminal such as automatically dialling a pre-stored number on a telephone card (a useful feature for some intellectually impaired persons).
  • Pre-set amount (for an ATM) - after entering the PIN, the cash dispenser would automatically issue say £100 (this is a mode which might be surprisingly popular among many elderly users).
  • Simple instructions on touch screen - this is a feature which might be useful for customers who are technophobic.

Preferred output:

  • Large characters on screen - this includes size of characters as well as foreground /background colours or the choice of font.
  • Audio - this can vary from beeps to indicate the acceptance of an instruction, to speech feedback on key pressed (but not for the PIN or password), to speech prompts, to speech output of information normally displayed on the screen. Speech prompts can usually be achieved by using stored speech which is inexpensive and of good audio quality; full vocabulary speech synthesis is of lower quality which may be unacceptable to the occassional older user.
  • For audio systems such as the telephone, it would be desirable to be able to select the amplification for each frequency band - this would go some way towards compensating for a hearing loss in a particular frequency band.
  • Maximise use of icons - this may be desired by persons who are illiterate or who do not understand any of the languages available on that terminal.
  • Braille display - these are expensive (adding a few thousand pounds to the cost of a cash dispenser) and it is estimated that only 19,000 people can read Braille in the UK. However there may be some special application areas where the cost is justified.

If close contactless card:

  • No card insertion - this would help people in wheelchairs who cannot reach the slot for the card reader, those with hand tremor or arthritis, and blind persons.

If distant contactless card:

  • Locating appropriate terminal (eg audible location signal) - this would help blind persons find the terminal.
  • Trigger message - for instance, the user’s card could trigger an audio message at the entrance to a bus giving the destination of that bus.
  • Preferred height of keypad - a wheelchair user would find it very helpful if the keypad could automatically adjust to a suitable height.
  • Remote input device - a personal terminal with a radio or infra-red link to the fixed terminal would permit the custom designing of special interfaces.


Smart cards offer exciting possibilities for improving access to self-service terminals by disabled and elderly persons. However it will soon be essential that there is some agreed standard for recording these preferences on the smart card.


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