They've become an indispensable part of our lives, but how many of us know the proper way to use a cash machine?

Nick Morrison reports on how research into all things automated could help us get to grips with the public face of technology

MOST of us do it at least once a week, some of us far more often than that, and there are some who have to do it every day or they just can't manage. But around one in four of us have never done it - and have no wish to do it in the future.

Using a cash machine has become as much a part of our lives as a trip to the supermarket. However much we rely on plastic for the bulk of our shopping trips, there is still a myriad of transactions where only cash will do. And, unless we still stuff our socks full of notes and bury them in the back garden, using cash means going to the cash machine every now and then.

Ever since Barclays installed the UK's first 24-hour cash machine, at its branch in Enfield, north London, in 1967, our love affair with the contraptions - properly called Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) - has blossomed. There are now around 44,000 of them across the country, and in the run-up to Christmas, more than £1.1bn was withdrawn from Barclays machines alone.

So it's only fitting that this phenomenon has come in for academic scrutiny, under the first law of research that every aspect of our lives is a proper subject for serious study. Linda Little, a psychologist at Northumbria University, has so far spent 18 months looking into the way people use technology in public areas, with another 18 months to go.

"You can walk down the high street and you can see people interacting everywhere with technology, whether it is mobile phones, Internet cafes, ATMs - it is a massive industry out there," she says. "I'm looking at issues such as privacy, personal space - whether there is enough space and people feel comfortable using it - safety, time pressure - whether people feel they have to be quick or they can take their time - and also about how different locations can affect people's attitude to using technology."

Linda's research, funded by National Cash Registers, which makes ATMs, has so far seen her observe people using cash machines, asking cash machine users to fill out a questionnaire, and conducting interviews. The next 18 months will see her widen the research to take in people using Internet cafes and other types of technology.

'THERE are lots of issues out there, and with technology changing, there is the question of whether people's attitudes are changing along with them," she says.

One of the principal attractions of using a cash machine is its simplicity, but something is only easy if you know how to do it. There must have been a first time for everyone. When you first tried to use one, did you swagger up and study the screen at your leisure, regardless of the queue forming behind you, or did you wait until there was no-one else around, before furtively dashing forward?

Not surprisingly, it turns out that older people are the most reluctant to use cash machines, and the most likely to continue getting their cash over the counter at the bank or post office.

"I have had people say they only started using it when they had been shown by someone else," says Linda, "but the majority of people just go up for the first time. Some people will accept technology more than others. It is surprising how a lot of people are nervous about using them. One woman said it was a computer, and she didn't know how to use a computer. With any technology, nobody instructs you how to use it, but whereas some people are nervous, other will experiment and press a few buttons quite happily."

Linda's surveys show that most people are generally happier using cash machines which are inside banks, which are seen as safer and more private. On the streets, ATMs in busy areas are seen as affording less personal space, but those in more secluded locations suffer from safety problems. How important each issue is depends on factors including the time of day and how dark it is, although there is no ideal outside location.

Personal space is a key consideration, with most of us feeling uncomfortable at the presence of a stranger in our 'intimate zone', up to one-and-a-half feet away.

"When you are queuing, people do stand just on the edge of your intimate zone, but when you go up to the ATM you find people don't encroach into the intimate zone. People follow norms of socially accepted behaviour to give people space, partly because they know they are going to be next," Linda says.

For many ATM users, the biggest frustration is finding yourself behind someone who seems to be in no hurry and is intent on checking their balance, ordering statements, transferring cash from one account to another, and then puzzling over how much to withdraw today.

'I interviewed a woman who said 'This man was taking ages and it was on my lunch hour so I encroached right on his space, but when I realised what I'd done I stepped back and felt really awful' - people are aware of their behaviour and they don't really want it to happen to them," Linda says. "In one interview, I was told that people in the queue were muttering 'Oh God, hurry up, what are you doing?' to someone who was taking their time."

Annoying as it is for those waiting, this pressure not to take too long is felt by everyone once they reach the machine, with the result that most of us will only carry out one transaction if there are people behind us, even if there is more than one thing we want to do. And we want to do our business and be away within a minute, Linda says.

"People say 'You can't do two things' as if it is an accepted norm. I have had people who said that if there were no-one around, they messed about on the machine and did things they had never done before, because they felt happier using it, but a minute is the accepted norm."

This suggests that any moves to increase the number of services offered by ATMs, which are, after all just part of a vast computer network, will fall at the hurdle of our embarrassment at lingering too long over their screens.

And it is developments like these that Linda's work will help inform. From the best places to put cash machines, to the sort of services we would be prepared to use on our mobile telephones, from the usefulness of building computerised information kiosks in town centres to the future for Internet cafes. Technology has already transformed our lives and soon it may transform the High Street as well.