Kiosks -- Are They Worth It?

Some say the Web killed the kiosk concept in its infancy. Others are combining the two.

by / February 28, 1999 0
In the early 1990s, many federal and state agencies promoted kiosks as an effective way of disseminating information and government services to the public. In practice, deployment proved more complex than first envisioned. In addition to shrinking public-sector budgets, kiosk programs were plagued by a number of factors -- chiefly, the widespread notion of the Web as a competing medium, the high cost of kiosk deployment, lengthy procurement cycles and the two- or three- year pilot project required to come up with a kiosk system of value to the public.

According to Summit Research Associates President Francie Mendelsohn, kiosk projects also faltered from a lack of clear planning and too little thought to applications, design and maintenance.

Ironically, these same factors later became learning experiences that contributed to successful kiosk models developed by Georgia; Ontario, Canada; New York City; Texas; and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

For the purposes of this discussion, "kiosk" refers to Internet-enabled, interactive kiosks designed primarily to disseminate information and government services to the public.

Influence of the Web

Initially, many considered the Web a simpler, more cost-effective method of providing information for citizens than public-access kiosks. Government agencies that might have supported kiosk

programs shifted resources into developing Web sites. By 1996, high-visibility kiosk projects in several states were stalled or shelved altogether. To some, the kiosk was another Betamax.

North Communications Senior Vice President of Marketing Rick Rommel said this view of the Web is short-sighted.

"The Web is not a competitor to kiosk deployment; it is a synergistic technology. It enhances kiosk control and applications," he said. "Also, the Web doesn't reach all citizens; in fact, it can be argued that those who need public services the most have the least access to high-tech service-delivery channels."

Mendelsohn agreed with this view. "Generally, the very people who need public services the most -- the poor, the homeless, the disabled, the disadvantaged -- do not have access to a computer or to the Web."

Although computers are available in libraries, the people Mendelsohn refers to are not likely to have the skills to use them. By contrast, kiosks providing touch-screen navigation require no computer skills, only the ability to push a few buttons and read the directions for using them. "A public-access kiosk," Rommel added, "is an easy way for some people to get the information they need, rather than trying to ferret it out wandering through the Web. One of the major attributes of this technology is that it presents only information necessary to meet the needs of the user."


Depending on the number of units in a kiosk network, physical infrastructure and software are the major costs. In small networks of one to 10 units, system design and programming represent the highest costs. In systems of 100 or more units, hardware and maintenance are the big-ticket items. Either way, Rommel said that without a suitable application suite, expenses could outweigh benefits for a single agency.

Public agencies have tried several solutions to mitigate the overall expense of kiosk projects, including spreading the cost over several agencies; partnering with private-sector companies that design, manufacture and operate Internet-enabled kiosk networks; charging local advertisers for program space; and charging user fees for transactional services, such as paying parking tickets, obtaining hunting licenses, renewing drivers' licenses and applying for license plates. Government entities may also partially offset costs by assigning a dollar value to staff hours saved as a result of automating information and selected transactions.

Some vendors offer to install and maintain kiosk systems at no charge, in exchange for revenue-sharing agreements. In such arrangements, the contractor generally formats program changes received from the sponsoring agency, then downloads them via the Internet or intranet to designated kiosks. Mendelsohn said some state and local governments are wary of this type of arrangement.

"They feel that if the project doesn't generate the revenue the vendor expects, what's to prevent them from pulling up their kiosks and leaving town?" he said. "In some cases, they've done that. So arrangements with vendors depend on the mindset of the state or local government."

Procurement Cycles

Lengthy procurement cycles, characteristic of government transactions, have also derailed projects. According to Rommel, it can take two or even three years to get a project deployed.

"In the meantime, we, the manufacturers, may go through two or three generations of technology and deployment approaches," he said. "During that time, the internal champions for a project may migrate somewhere else. The result: inconsistency of vision and wavering support for the project."

That happened with a U.S. Post Office kiosk project, he added.

"They got caught in one of the long procurement cycles. It took them so long that by the time they were ready to deploy, the management supporting it rolled over, and a new crew came in with new agendas."

Technological Developments

It is interesting that the technology many thought would send kiosks to the boneyard actually made them more attractive to government. From Web technology came the intranet, private networks with the same protocols and hypertext links as the Web. Intranet-enabled kiosks around the country could now be programmed, controlled and monitored from central locations. No longer was it necessary to have technicians on the road, constantly tweaking and updating individual units. Web technology not only made the Internet-enabled kiosk a reality, it helped bring government services closer to those most in need of them.

A few kiosks with transactional service capability also take credit cards, enabling users to pay parking tickets, renew drivers' licenses and buy hunting and fishing licenses. Government-sponsored kiosks may have tourist information and advertisements for hotels and restaurants. Some of these kiosks have telephones for making reservations. They may dispense discount coupons for special events or have a digital camera for taking pictures that can be sent via e-mail. Most public-sector kiosks also have printers.

Lessons Learned

Mendelsohn stressed the importance of using printers specifically designed for kiosk applications -- durable systems with the ability to handle large paper rolls, and programming that limits printouts to only the information needed. "The public has no use for six pages of HTML headers. Store owners in shopping malls are furious when kiosks litter their area with paper."

Mendelsohn said the three keys to kiosks are the same as the three rules of retail success: location, location, location. "Kiosks placed in city hall have not done well. People don't just stroll into city hall unless they have specific business there. But when kiosks are in shopping malls, grocery stores, and other places where the public just goes in the course of a regular day, they've been much more successful."

Mendelsohn stressed simplicity -- uncluttered touch-screens and a simple front end with a few buttons and instructions for using them. Instead of being confronted by sophisticated Web browsers, kiosk users see a vastly simplified graphic user interface (GUI) that translates user commands to an unseen Web browser.

"An intuitive GUI with four or five navigation buttons makes it easier for users to go to the next screen, go back or print," Mendelsohn said. "Considerable testing has shown that people want information on one screen; they are very unlikely to hit the 'next' button.

"Smarter organizations will copy much of the information on their Web site to the kiosk. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, design all the applications a second time to run on the kiosk," he continued. "The information can be the same as what is on the Web site, only not nearly as much. Also, a fallback, a canned operation, is essential for those times when connection to the Internet fails. Better-designed units have remote monitoring capability and can automatically restart when the connection is down. If people see that a kiosk is out of service every time they walk past, it's doomed."

Mendelsohn also stressed visual consistency; sites for each government department should have a similar appearance. "At least have the opening screen look the same. After the first page, if necessary, they can resume their individual appearance," he said. "But there has to be some commonality somewhere, otherwise, people get confused."

A system of measuring public response has been incorporated in most successful kiosks. These programs typically record the number of hits the kiosk receives. They indicate which applications are used the most, which ones the least. They also indicate the time users remain with a particular application and the overall time spent at the kiosk.

Kiosk Models

Kiosk programs operated by several states, major cities, and government departments suggest kiosks are, in fact, fulfilling a need for direct access to government services and information. This is especially true for kiosks that offer a wide range of transactional services.

* Georgia: Working on its own, the Georgia Net Authority (GNA) took only six months to completely reengineer 110 kiosks inherited from the 1996 Olympics Project. Initially funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the statewide system was largely a flop, extremely slow, difficult to use and without central control. Someone had to be on the road full time to see if individual units were up or down, and to update programs and applications by popping in a new CD. GNA replaced the original Windows 95 operating system with Windows NT, increasing system speed by a factor of 1,000. It installed an intuitive interface designed for touch-screen kiosks, incorporated usage measurement software, and brought the system into a frame-relay network so it could be centrally controlled and monitored. "Our system is online 24 hours, 7 days a week," said GNA Executive Director Tom Bostick. "And from what we've been told, it is one of the largest statewide kiosk networks in the country."

GNA kiosk applications include current weather for any Georgia city, weather-radar pictures, travel directions and information on restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions, and other points of interest. Users can look up airport information at the airport, including flight arrivals, departures and gate numbers.

"The information is all live," Bostick said. "Users can even check out the traffic on the interstate highways around Atlanta."

Bostick said the 1.5 million hits per month attract funding from the private sector. "We're using that data to generate revenue by marketing kiosk advertising. If a business already has a listing in the kiosk program, we point out that for a small annual fee, we can enhance their listing with a logo and a picture of their hotel, motel, inn or restaurant," he said. "We are also working with other major sponsors. The Atlanta Convention and Business Bureau wants us to put 20 kiosks in selected sites around the city, in exchange for an ongoing monthly fee."

The GNA is presently considering the addition of a keyboard, a feature that will open up even more applications.

* Ontario, Canada: Service Ontario is a highly successful kiosk network operated by the Canadian province in partnership with IBM. Started as a pilot program in 1993, it now has 61 units, mostly in shopping malls in Toronto and Ottawa. The popularity of the system is due mainly to the convenience it offers the pubic in being able to register motor vehicles, buy license plate stickers, get printouts of driving records and run history searches on used vehicles. Users can also pay fines for parking and moving violations, renew drivers', hunting and fishing licenses, and file change-of-address forms required by government agencies.

"We run a user-satisfaction survey of two or three questions with each transaction performed," said Senior IBM Consultant Bill Clarke. "That's how we measure system performance in terms of customer satisfaction. So far, they're telling us we're on the right track."

The combination of transaction-user fees and the internal value of the system make Service Ontario a self-supporting operation. According to Summit Research Associates' Mendelsohn, tens of thousands use this system every month. "When I'm asked, what is the most successful public-sector kiosk you've seen, my answer has been the same for four years -- Service Ontario."

* New York City: A three-year pilot program showed New York City that enough of its citizens use kiosks to warrant serious rollout. According to Mendelsohn, the city is accepting bids for deployment of 1,000 units throughout all five boroughs. "Now, it's down to figuring the best business deal they can cut to get these units deployed."

Mendelsohn said New York has scrutinized every aspect of kiosks, from public acceptance of their value to cost structure and long-term maintenance. "They see a tremendous value to their citizens in putting these things out -- people are using them."

Once, during the pilot program, Mendelsohn was observing three kiosks in Brooklyn. "I was there for several hours, and there was a steady stream of people using them. The no-attention span of New Yorkers gave rise to the phrase, 'New York Minute,' but New Yorkers are using these things and finding them wonderful. They say, 'We have access to city services without the attitude.'"

* Texas: Info Texas is a tenant model installed by North Communications, at no cost to the state. "Our key tenant is the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC)," Senior Vice President Rommel explained. "TWC pays North for the residency of their applications on the kiosks. We have about 80 units in this model in Texas."

Under an agreement with the TWC, North Communications can market the kiosks to other public agencies and to the private sector, although the TWC has final approval over content. Originally, the agency was responsible for all the kiosks. Today it operates only 20, under an agreement with the Department of Human Services. The remaining units are under the control of local TWC boards, although public information appearing on units operated by the agency is also on all the rest.

Programs are in English and Spanish. Users can look for job openings, register for work, fill out applications and get information on youth employment and unemployment insurance.

With all that time saved, one might have expected staff layoffs, but that wasn't the case, said Mike Fernandez, director of the TWC's Technology and Facilities Management Division. "Staff that formerly spent much of their time and effort answering routine inquiries are now involved in job development and direct services. So the kiosk program has had measurable value for the government, although, it would be difficult to quantify the savings." Fernandez said Info Texas has been in place for about six years. "Based on feedback from the public, we view the kiosk as a very positive program."

* HUD: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development put out its first kiosks last May, initially in "high tower" federal buildings, but quickly yanked them out and installed them in shopping malls, supermarkets, public buildings and in their new street-level, storefront offices. "The intent," said Candi Harrison, Web manager for HUD's Internet home page, "is to get ourselves out to the people instead of making them come to us."

The department has 26 "Next Door Kiosks" in cities nationwide, offering information on buying homes, finding affordable rentals, locating homeless shelters, and getting instructions on filing a housing discrimination complaint. Users can check to see if they are owed a refund on FHA mortgage loans. They can pull up a list of HUD-approved lenders, and find out what HUD properties are for sale in the area. The kiosks also have an interactive mortgage calculator; users can plug in basic information and find out whether they qualify for an FHA mortgage. The information is available in English or Spanish and is updated daily for the kiosk's area. Printouts are free.

The cost of each unit is about $16,000. Harrison said people often ask her if the system is worth the cost. "Of course it is. If government can provide information of value to the people, then it's the right thing to do."


According to a recent study by Frost & Sullivan of Mountain View, Calif., market revenues from world government kiosks reached $139.8 million in 1997, a growth of about 52 percent over the previous year. Since many public agencies also market kiosk advertising space to hotels, restaurants and special events, it should be noted that kiosk market revenues from tourism and entertainment totaled $52 million for the same year, an increase of 36 percent over 1996.

Governments' continued efforts to streamline public service is one of the factors driving growth in the world government kiosk market. Technology is another.

The incorporation of new magnetic card readers, pointing devices, microphones, cameras, proximity detectors, printers, keyboards, force-vector touch screens, flat screens and other developments will inevitably reduce the size and lower the cost of kiosk systems while improving reliability. As cost is reduced and kiosks continue to be recognized as an effective medium of providing information and government services, they may, in fact, become the vending machine of the Information Age.

Bill McGarigle is a writer specializing in communications and information technology. He lives in Santa Cruz, Calif. Email