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Kiosks offer new application for multimedia technology (Dallas Business Journal; 01/02/98)

After discussing multimedia in my last column and some manifestations of using that hybrid of technologies, one application requires greater attention - kiosks. Starting with the simple automated teller machines, kiosks have developed a personality of their own that is evolving into broader acceptance. In fact, BusinessWeek recently discussed how mall owners are using kiosks as a strategic tool to build up sales per square foot.

What is a kiosk? A kiosk is a self-contained unit that combines hardware and software to blend all current media including video, photography, text and quality sound. The technology is quite advanced to allow for kiosks to be very sophisticated stationary robots that can communicate and interact with a user.

How can kiosks be used? There are public entity and corporate applications to kiosks. Public-based entities would include government agencies, charities, library systems, etc. For example, the state of Maryland has successfully implemented mall-based kiosks for automobile registration renewal and some other services.

Corporate uses include advertising, sources of information or an ability to process a transaction. For example, early adopters of kiosks in their businesses have been hotels, car rental businesses and even airports, that focus on informing (i.e., directions, tourist sites or where to eat) or advertising (i.e., hotels, restaurants and menus) to travelers that are looking for a reliable source for information. Some airlines have been early adopters by using kiosks to sell tickets in the airport and elsewhere. Finally, some malls are using kiosks to funnel information to the mall "employment center" to find seasonal help for mall tenants.

Kiosk use is not only for people outside an organization. They can be good tools to introduce and train specific topic areas or employees that would otherwise not be using a desktop computer at work. A well-designed kiosk will be easier to use and have a shorter learning curve than most desktop multimedia applications. Uses may include educating employees about personnel policy, new product lines, and persuading participation in voluntary employee benefits.

Rules for evaluating your use. In developing your plans to use kiosks in your business, there are five issues that you must consider.

1. Placement. Some early adoptions of kiosks have been failures. Even the success of all ATMs is not equal. It goes back to the top three criteria for good real estate - location, location, location! In evaluating your use of kiosks for internal or external purposes, be sure that the kiosk will be getting good real estate. One application is shelf-mounted or freestanding units for the retail environment that will promote and provide add-ins to consumers.

2. Use issues. The KISS notion (keep it simple, stupid) is critical for a well-designed kiosk. Thus, it must be a work horse, be easy to use and should be accessible for the widest population of users.

That means considering:

How will the screen look? Screen text and graphics should be readable. Consider the worst eyesight of users.

How will audio sound? Sound should be clear and audible in the kiosks intended location..

How will users interact? Will they use keyboard, touch screen, or both?

Will it be designed to recognize return users?

Will the user leave with something?

3. Technological architecture. In defining the kiosks' operations, you must address the technologies it will use. Questions that must be answered include:

If it accepts transactions, how will those transactions be processed? Will content be entirely self-contained or will a centralized database be used constantly?

How will you be tracking behaviors and usage activities to allow for the evolution of a better kiosk?

Will all your kiosks be interconnected?

What technology will be used for the interconnectivity: radio frequency, wide area network, dial up or Internet-based?

What is the power source? What happens if the power goes out?

How will you know when it is broken and who will fix it?

4. Physical design. When you know how the kiosk will operate, where it will be placed and what technologies it will use, you are ready to answer what it will look like. The goal is keeping the space requirements low, despite an ambitious functional design.

5. Cost. A kiosk initiative is not cheap. Because of all the details that must be planned, a single kiosk usually starts at around $20,000. Some vendors have lease alternatives that allow for greater flexibility in committing to the underlying technology. Of all the multimedia applications, this requires the most upfront soul-searching and objective-setting before beginning.

Yudkowsky is the director of management consulting services at Grabush, Newman & Co. P.A., a Baltimore-based regional certified public accounting and management consulting firm. He may be reached at (410) 296-6300.


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