Commentary: A harsh reality for kiosks

Aug. 14, 2012

Touchscreen interactive kiosks were first introduced to commercial and retail settings in the 1980s. The relationship showed promise—the kiosks were exciting, futuristic and publicly accessible.

In subsequent years, the concept slowly caught on, but never met its full potential. Problems lingered revolving around identity, reliability, usefulness and user experience.

Clearly, there have been innovative and effective kiosks, but arguably, they have been vastly outnumbered by duds and inconsequential installations. Worldwide, there have been over a million placed in service, but the potential was far greater. Now, the ubiquity of “smart” mobile devices is finally going to cull this industry down to a realistically small size and quickly kill off the worthless kiosks hiding in the shadows, whether Kool-Aid drinking industry players accept it or not.

In the past, the construction of kiosks was archaically basic. Strap a PC inside of a particle board box, plug in a touch screen, slap out some “application” with big buttons and call it a kiosk. Over time, deployers raised their expectations and became resistant to the hulking boxes. The advent of flat panel screens, the use of improved hardware and the growth of the Internet has changed the whole of kiosks for the better.

The improvements have been too little, too late. The industry disruption has literally arrived at the hand of consumers.

Largely, kiosks have not made much of an impact in the hearts and minds of the most relevant people—users. User satisfaction is the fundamental measure of a successful kiosk, and therein lies a crucial advantage for mobile. Rarely does someone look forward to, boast about, or share positive experiences regarding their encounter with a kiosk. However, they often do with mobile. Users/consumers are indifferent to the source of the information/utility/experience they seek. They just want it to be useful or entertaining and are more than willing to supply their own device to make that happen.

Still, in an exponentially expanding mobile world, there are many non-believers out there trying to justify the need for and usefulness of existing kiosks. The arguments they make sound plausible to people desperately in need of reassurance, but examined logically from a consumer or user experience perspective, they don't wash.

Here are some rebuttals and industry wistfulness.

Kiosks to print tickets/coupons from mobile devices. Why? That's a burden on the user. Airlines and Amtrak were heavily into kiosk ticket printing but are migrating to mobile check-ins/ticketing. Retailers are replacing paper scanners with new ones that can scan a phone. NFC, GPS and numerous other mobile coupon apps/startups are negating paper coupons.

Kiosks that dispense purchased products.Hello kiosk identity crisis! These are vending machines that evolved to replace levers and buttons with touchscreen interfaces and cashless payment options. "Kiosk" has always been defined liberally, but vending machines are not kiosks.

Kiosks for directories, wayfinding, maps and concierge. Mobile can do anything these kiosks can do, but better. Make a wrong turn half way through the mall and you have to find another kiosk. Mobile is a hand-held, real-time guide with features kiosks will never have.

Kiosks for check-in/loyalty. Bolted to the floor in one spot means a bad or limited user experience. The better options are mobile check-in anywhere and location-based mobile loyalty/coupons/incentives offered precisely where they are most effective.

Endless aisle kiosks. Sure, they can extend a store's physical inventory infinitely, but who goes to a store anymore to start catalog browsing? Who will wait 10-15 minutes for another user to finish, so they can have a turn? What retailer is going to put in 10 to 20 units per location to avoid queuing? Won't shoppers access a store's mobile website on their own device?

Lastly—using a mobile device to drive people to a kiosk. Isn't the desperation in this one obvious?

Surely the cynics will quickly dismiss these points, claiming that not everyone has a smartphone—which is a true statement. However, smartphone penetration into industrialized populations is occurring far more rapidly than the Internet did, which did so faster than TV, which did so faster than radio. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is betting on widespread smartphone adoption, recently outlining the company’s strategy based on its expectation that five billion people will own smartphones within the next four or five years. No rational CTO or CMO is going to invest in dated concepts at the risk of ignoring the mobile-saturated world that’s coming on like a 500 mph freight train.

So yes, all those horrific kiosk designs/implementations that we've endured and have been embarrassed to admit are part of the business, are doomed and rightly so. Even many well-conceived/executed units are going to go away. The net result will be a far smaller kiosk industry with (if Darwinian theory applies) the remaining players being companies that understand the new mobile-centric marketplace and are capable of adding value to it, where applicable, with kiosks.

Next generation kiosks won’t be the machines of days gone by and they will rarely offer the obsolete features mentioned above. Instead, they will act as legitimate extensions of mobile devices, digital signage and specialized displays. For example: there’s a kiosk that can measure people’s feet and recommend orthotics based on the data it collects—something not easily achieved with a phone app alone. Additionally, there are kiosks/digital displays that interactively emit fragrance samples—a feature phones won’t have for themselves anytime soon.

To be clear: This is the final opportunity for this business to become focused, effective, and innovative. There’s no longer room for unimaginative products, knock-off artists and easy sales. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but its great medicine for what has in many ways been a sick industry.

So, thank you mobile. Thank you for necessitating that our trade become lean and competitive and for giving it a second chance to positively influence the future.


Ken Lonyai is a kiosk hardware and software strategist/developer and the digital innovation strategist and co-founder of ScreenPlay InterActive. His latest kiosk project won a 2012 User Experience Award.

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