Kiosks -- Are They Worth It?
Some say the Web killed the kiosk concept in its infancy. Others are combining the two.
By Bill McGarigle | Government Technology
VSPACE="4">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."
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."
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
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
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
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
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
* 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
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
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
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
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