Touchy-feely technology makes kiosks easy to use but complicated to manage

They’re not your typical client devices. After all, many stand nearly six feet tall. They communicate primarily by touch. And they’re built tough: in some cases, they can even face down the business-end of a .44 Magnum.

They’re called kiosks. You may have come across one in a department store, airport or government office, depending on where you live. And as consumers become more accustomed to doing business over the Internet and experiencing the quick turnaround e-commerce provides, experts say kiosks will become a growth industry.

According to California-based researchers Frost & Sullivan, the U.S. kiosk market, with roughly 51,000 units deployed as of this year, is worth an estimated US$200 million. However, that figure is expected to jump to 350,000 units deployed by 2005 – giving the market an estimated value of US$1.8 billion.

Given that the industry is expanding, experts recommend that IS shops give the prospect of a kiosk rollout careful consideration. Because of their “dumbed-down” status relative to other devices, IS managers may not give them the respect they deserve.

Frost defines kiosks as “stand-alone or networked information or transaction machine(s)” that provide users with information or allow them to purchase goods and services. While they differ widely in style, kiosks generally consist of modestly-powered PCs sitting within in a plastic and glass case.

Two broad markets exists for them. One is the so-called “Internet payphone” or public Internet stations which, as the name suggests, may literally co-exist with public phones. The other is a supplement for — or replacement of – paid help, either in a retail or public-sector environment.

Because these devices live in the public domain, kiosk makers, not wishing to alienate the non-typing segments of society, have long since made the touchscreen the kiosk interface of choice. That should be the first tip-off to IS managers that kiosks just aren’t like other clients, said Generosa Litton, a research analyst with Frost in Mountain View, Calif.

“The perception is (that) building a kiosk is just putting a computer in a box, and then running it,” she said. “There are other things to consider…[the] design, the software, and the applications. You need to think about the application and how your company is gong to use it. And it’s usually hard to be objective in-house.”

Litton said companies considering going the kiosk route should get third-party help. Building the interface software is like novelists writing for children — in most cases, it’s easier for programmers to build complex applications than it is to design a largely graphics-based GUI that won’t scare away non-computer users. Still others may look at the box and decide it’s easy to build themselves. But if it’s not designed properly, the PC inside can overheat and crash the system.

Luckily there is no shortage of kiosk experts to call on. Like the early days of the Web, Frost said the kiosk market is brimming with small, start-up players, each with their own expertise. But some more recognizable names are also cashing in on the kiosk phenomenon. In Canada, there’s Nortel Networks. And in the U.S., NCR Corp. and IBM Corp. are pushing their kiosk offerings.

NCR, backed by its expertise in the worldwide ATM market, is 18 months into its retail kiosk program. Desmond Martin, vice-president of general merchandise industry marketing with Dayton, Ohio-based NCR, said it is important that IS shops commit the time and resources required to maintain kiosks.

“The problem with kiosks traditionally has been that nobody owns them. They’re out there, and no one is necessarily responsible for it,” Martin said. “Somebody in the store must be given responsibility for maintaining them.”

That might mean scheduling someone to inspect them on a regular basis. But Martin also points to NCR’s proprietary software which alerts kiosk administrators when problems arise. Such technology is common in newer units and it has almost rendered older, stand-alone kiosks obsolete, while making it even easier for companies to maintain systems once they’re in the field.

That’s exactly what Tricia Waples, kiosk project leader at Sears Canada Inc. in Toronto, has learned. Waples oversaw the rollout of 109 kiosks in Sears stores across Canada to facilitate the department store’s wedding gift registry program. Today the kiosks allow shoppers to enter gifts into bridal or shower registries using a handheld scanner. The information travels over an IP network to a central DB2 database.

“It was a different rollout from what we normally do, because normally our rollouts are for functionality that interacts with our sales associates. This time, we’re interacting with our customers,” she said.

Waples said maintenance has been Sears’ biggest challenge. “If the cash register goes down, the sales associates let us now right away. We have found with the kiosk that we have to be more proactive,” she said.

Waples said her staff now inspect the kiosks on a regular basis, and that Sears knows within a few hours if one of them is down. And Sears is planning to install automatic notification technology.

Waples also spent a lot of time getting feedback from customer test groups before going live, making sure the information on the screen flowed in a logical manner, and figuring out whether or not shoppers would actually use the tool. In that sense, experts say, kiosks are no different from Web sites. They are the company’s public face. If they are hard to use, or worse, if they’re not functioning, then customers aren’t likely to complain — they’ll simply disappear.

So those who plan to adopt kiosks should be committed to providing full support. “Don’t give [customers] a blank screen, and don’t give them an out of service sign, because that’s just committing professional suicide. That customer won’t come back,” warned Francie Mendelsohn, an analyst and kiosk consultant with Summit Research Associates Inc. in Rockville, Md.

Internet connection failures are a fact of life, Mendelsohn said, and compaines should plan for it. She also points to another mistake common among her clients: lack of planning. “They really don’t do their homework. They think they know what the public wants…but they don’t seem to factor in enough of the average user. It’s what I call ‘know your audience.'” Customers shouldn’t have to wait longer than five seconds for the information to come up, Mendelsohn said. Companies can cover themselves by caching data on the kiosk hard drive.

Other kiosk experts share that view. They say kiosks should come equipped only with the applications the public needs to do a transaction or get information, and not what the sponsors think customers should see. And then there are more practical concerns: enclosures should not be too high or too low, should be accessible to the disabled and should look good. Just like real estate, location is key. And, most importantly, the reason for getting kiosks in the first place has to make good business sense.

Mark Kornak, vice-president and CIO with Boardwalk Equities Inc., a Calgary-based property landlord that manages 52,000 rental units in western Canada, plans to roll out 250 of Nortel’s new NetVenue e-commerce kiosks later this summer – one for each building. The idea is to offer tenants their own Web portal where they can do everything form file a service request with Boardwalk to ordering a cab or a pizza.

He calls the kiosk administration “extremely trivial,” since all of Boardwalk’s buildings are already part of a virtual private network using Cisco routers. Kornak is more concerned with durability.

“Look at the environment you’re putting it into, that’s number one. If it’s going to be easily destroyed, that’s the biggest concern.” Nortel has assured Kornak that the NetVenue is build to handle everything from spilled soft drinks to a .44 Magnum.

If you’re working in the public sector, chances are even greater that kiosks will soon become part of your IS environment. Kiosks can offer government services like driver’s licence renewals 24 hours a day – and if they’re widely deployed citizens don’t have to travel long distance to take care of their business.

Bill McCutcheon is project manager for the ServiceOntario kiosk program, which experts point to as one of the most comprehensive kiosk initiatives in North America. McCutcheon is also part of IBM Canada Ltd.’s electronic access group, with responsibilities for kiosks, operating under IBM’s e-business division. Currently IBM Canada is in the midst of a five year contract to operate and maintain 61 kiosks in shopping malls and government offices across the province on behalf of several Ontario government ministries.

Each of the kiosks are connected to an IP network with an RS/6000 at the hub. The RS/6000 obtains specific Ministry information through an SNA connection with each back-end system. McCutcheon said the biggest challenge for him is keeping the information and applications up to date.

“It’s really not different than updating Internet sites where you have multiple servers around,” he said.

And he said it’s wise to thoroughly test every application before it gets before the eyes of the public. “We have three test sties where we can test the application ahead of time,” McCutcheon said. “In most cases we try to do as much as we can ahead of time, before we promote something. “