Valerie Fenster has spent the past decade making it easier for bank customers to talk to machines.
Her company, UserWare Inc., draws on a stable of about a dozen actors, screenwriters, and computer programmers to help banks and other companies make automated teller machines and voice-response units "friendly."
She calls the business, based in a converted downtown New York warehouse, "interface design."
"Whether you are playing a game or getting money, the user interface leads you through an application so you can know what you need to do to get the job done," said Ms. Fenster, 44, who previously worked in the advertising industry and as a vice president at Citibank.
She said she didn't buy her own first computer until four years ago, the same year she founded UserWare to confront what she considers an exceedingly difficult business challenge.
"You may think you are on the right track, but the customer is always surprising you," said Ms. Fenster. "Put a prototype out in front of your average customer, and they can't get the idea."
Take Citibank's ATMs. Their "dip readers" were the first in the industry that allowed customers to hold on to their cards throughout a transaction, rather than feel they were running the risk of the machine's "eating" the card and not spitting it back out.
But customers didn't get it at first when Citibank introduced dip readers in the Chicago market, where Ms. Fenster was vice president and head of prototyping.
"I remember standing and watching, wondering 'Why can't these people understand not to leave the card in?'" she said.
She recalled a sudden flash of inspiration that yielded the phrase, "In one motion, dip your card and take it right out." Those words now sit on almost all Citibank ATMs explaining how to activate them.
Trying to understand what a user thinks and feels when dealing with interactive software-a problem as prevalent on the Internet as it is in physical-world interfaces like ATM screens-is one of the goals of UserWare's testing process.
The $1 million company's clients include AT&T Corp., BankAmerica Corp., Citicorp, People's Bank of Connecticut, T. Rowe Price Associates, and National Westminster's U.S. retail banking operation, now ownd by Fleet Financial Group.
When Bank of America began creating its home banking service for America Online, it called on UserWare to develop a sample user interface to see how customers reacted to various options on the screen. Was it clear how to check a balance? Would an on-line user know how to pay a bill?
In observation rooms with one-way mirrors, Ms. Fenster created an environment so authentic that the computer actually made the sound of dialing a modem even though the entire exercise was conducted off-line.
"It is like a little theater operation," she said. "It is fake, but it looks real. You want them to be under the pressure of doing the real thing. You want them to get nervous so that they start to sweat."
One result of all this testing was a new feature called "Quickbalance," allowing a customer to see the current balance from any point within the program. The design's interface won the magazine PC Computing's highest rating for an on-line banking service.
But few computer-human experiences can top the irritation that results from getting lost in a phone tree-the maze of instructions given by those ubiquitous automated response systems.
A study that UserWare conducted for AT&T found that the telecommunications giant's high-end customers wanted to cut down on the verbiage so much that they didn't even want an option prompting them to seek help.
"Their time is so pressed that when they call at all, they want a very abbreviated conversant system," said Maria S. Paschitti, a manager in AT&T's marketing sciences division.
To cut down on programming time, UserWare will deploy voice-over staff to observe the customer tests in person. As they learn what phrases and intonations work, they can make modifications on the fly and see how test subjects react.
"Some projects you actually want to have no personality, because you want them to deal directly with the application," said Nancy Lee Russell, an account supervisor at UserWare who was trained at the San Francisco Theater Academy and is currently involved in a video-theater production based on Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice."
"Some actually have metaphors like a golf caddy who is always there in the background, giving the helpful hint at the right time, but never reprimanding," said Ms. Russell.
Ms. Fenster doesn't advise use of big-name talent for voiceovers, at least not during the production process. But celebrities have shown up in the response systems of KeyCorp (Anthony Edwards of the "E.R." program) and Bell Atlantic (James Earl Jones).
Ms. Fenster traces her involvement in interface design to the rise of the pioneering Minitel on-line network in France. Its introduction in the 1980s sparked a lot of thinking in the technology's marketing implications.
A friend led Ms. Fenster, who was doing advertising for Ketchum Director Advertising, a division of Ketchum Communications, to Citibank in 1989. The bank had been ahead of its peers in remote banking design and experimentation.
Citibank's on-screen friendliness-the brightly colored ATM display uses the touch-screen technique and conversational dialogue-has been credited with encouraging usage and customer loyalty. Citicorp says 80% of its customers use ATMs, versus an industry average of 60%.
To comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, Citibank ended up dividing the screen into four quadrants, permitting the blind, aided by Braille characters on the machine's surface, to feel their way around the touch screen. Ms. Fenster also designed a user interface composed of large white icons against a black background, to maximize visibility for those with trouble seeing.
Since she founded UserWare in 1993, Ms. Fenster has continued to design prototypes for Citicorp, including a system for ATMs that would permit customers to see and print out the image of a check that has just been deposited.
Consumer test responses were encouraging but Citibank is not sure about the costs of implementing the system, said Howard Schechtman of the Citicorp Development Center in Los Angeles.
Also at Citicorp, UserWare assisted in creating a more modern look for the Direct Access personal computer system, which is due later this year.
"We want to build systems the way users think and do tasks, as opposed to making customers get used to how systems do things," added Mel Takata, director of access technology labs at the center. "User interface is not a science, it is very much an art."
That art includes anticipating how customers from different cultures will react to the experience. For example, said Ms. Fenster, "Germans don't believe that machines can talk, so ATMs shouldn't talk in the first person" as they do in the United States.
She said convincing people to use technology, the main challenge in her field a decade ago, has given way to new hurdles.
"Now, the first impression you get is going to determine whether you use the product or whether you walk away, so it is very important to make this experience very comfortable," she said.
Ms. Fenster considers herself one of the masses, on the lookout for systems that will increase her comfort level.
"I don't even balance my checkbook," she said. "I don't know anything about banking."