Overcrowded message boards. Outdated directories. English-only menus.
Walk into almost any courthouse or government office across the country, and you're likely to encounter all of those headaches and more. But not in San Francisco.
What's the Golden Gate city's secret? Touchscreen kiosks. Recently, San Francisco prototyped
digital kiosks to be installed in its city hall.
Now, instead of using static directories to navigate the building, San Franciscans can use the kiosks to search through listed rooms, change languages and see upcoming events. City employees, meanwhile, update the content as needed. Completely paperless, the kiosks make it easy for both staff and citizens to get and give the information they need.
Of course, the project wasn't without its challenges. Because San Francisco's city hall is a historic building, there were limitations around what the kiosks could look like, where they could be installed, and whether the associated areas had accessible power and Internet hookups.
Perhaps rules and regulations have stopped other governments from springing for touchscreen kiosks. But for a small investment, these machines more than pay for themselves through added convenience and information access.
What Can Kiosks Do for You?
State and local governments on the fence about installing similar kiosks should consider the following capabilities that make it worthwhile to take the plunge:
1. Provide event information and directions
City halls see plenty of visitors, not to mention the dozens of government employees who work there. Weddings, meetings, dinners and other events take place within those halls, and anyone who isn’t intimately familiar with the layout has to flag down an employee for help. Then, that employee — whose job probably isn't to give directions to confused visitors — has to turn to old directories for answers.
Kiosks free up city staff's time by displaying lists of events that visitors can't miss. People can walk up to the screen, tap what they want to see, and then receive information on where and when the event is.
Although San Francisco's kiosk doesn't yet provide turn-by-turn event directions, it should soon via a product road map
that includes a mapping function. The technology is already used at interactive kiosks in shopping malls. The concept is the same: People in a large place need to know where to go, and digital kiosks provide that information in an intuitive, interactive format.
2. Update content at a moment's notice
Most government buildings contain static directories that were installed years ago, which can be even more frustrating than paper documents to update. From department moves to personnel changes, reprinting large boards is a time-consuming and expensive process.
Touchscreen kiosks, however, are as easy to update as a Facebook status. Through content management systems, city employees can log in and update information, and all the kiosks will be updated immediately — no need to take down, reprint or rehang anything.
3. Translate information into multiple languages
In San Francisco, local regulations outlined strict rules about languages and translations of signs. While printing translated signs (and keeping them updated) is a hassle, digital services make it easy to improve translations and add languages as populations change.
The protoype used a Microsoft translation service, which programmatically requests translations when admin users update the CMS. Although these auto-translation services are far from perfect, they are much easier and more reliable than asking staff members to update translations manually.
4. Improve access for people with disabilities
Stipulations by the Americans with Disabilities Act greatly influenced the kiosk design as well. If, for example, someone in a wheelchair needs to locate a wedding at City Hall, that person deserves the same level of access to the kiosk as everyone else.
In terms of interface design, that means positioning interactive elements in the right places. The San Francisco kiosk was placed used the ADA Accessibility Guidelines, and ultimately an “ADA Mode” was added to the kiosk for people who needed touchable items to be lower.
In an age when we turn to smartphones for our every need, stacks of paper and static directories no longer provide an acceptable level of service. By adding touchscreen kiosks, governments can meet citizens' needs today without worrying about what tomorrow will bring.
Rudy Mutter is the executive vice president of technology and founding partner at Yeti LLC, a product-focused development and design studio in San Francisco.