Designing Software for Kiosks
Touch-screen kiosks are an interesting creature. Like modern mobile devices, kiosks allow users to touch the screen directly, interacting directly with objects on screen without needing to be able to operate a mouse.
On the face of it, they’re apparently so similar that most people who are new to designing and building systems for kiosks seem to want to treat them as the same design problem by applying the same design solutions. It’s sometimes difficult to explain why an existing (fantastic) mobile interface can’t be simply repurposed for kiosks.
Sadly, that option never works. That’s because there are inescapable differences to be aware of between mobile devices and kiosks. As a company founded explicitly to create high-quality touch-screen kiosk software and our unique relationship with kiosk hardware manufacturer IQ KIOSK, here are some of the main things we’ve learnt to consider when designing and building kiosk software for our clients.
Kiosks are meant to be shared
Unlike mobile devices (which are generally highly private, personal devices), kiosks are designed to be shared by many users.
What’s best for shared users is very different from what’s best on devices you own and can customise to your liking. It’s important, then, that the system is able to accommodate the varied needs of all its users, not just the vocal minority.
It also means that you can’t normally provide users with any configurable settings to make them feel more comfortable interacting with the system, forcing us to design the system carefully to be intuitive and familiar without offering any configuration options such as text size or colour.
Since the units are shared, it’s also a significant design goal of kiosk software to fill its users’ needs as quickly as possible such that the next user isn’t left queuing for any longer than absolutely necessary. On the other hand, the software is generally also intended to entice passersby to interact and engage with the kiosk.
The balancing act between friendly, approachable design and utilitarian efficiency is one of the hardest parts of designing usable kiosk software.
Kiosks don’t know what you already know
Except in exceptional circumstances (such as ATMs) where users provide some personal identification before interacting with the kiosks, most kiosks can’t distinguish between a first-time user and someone who has used the kiosk five times per day for the past 2 years.
That means all the software we design for kiosks needs to be clear and explanatory without crossing the line into being condescending to users who have used it before, which requires careful wording and skillful use of content.
Beyond that, users also carry a heavy burden of expectation about any system they interact with, and that goes double for touch-screens in the age of the touch-screen smartphone. As kiosk software designers we have to be aware of as many touch-screen software products as we can so we’re able to identify their relative strengths and weaknesses, and so we have a huge array of mobile and desktop touch-screen hardware platforms we use for testing and research.
Kiosks are often left unattended
One of the main reasons people choose to implement kiosks in the first place is the idea of "self service"; removing the need to employ humans for simple tasks that can be easily performed by the user directly.
The risk, though, is that if a user can’t use the kiosk interface for any reason they’re often left with very few (if any) options to perform their action. It may sound like a rare situation, but we’ve all been frustrated at some point by a ticket machine refusing to take a coin or a touch screen ignoring our presses, and a kiosk—like any other computer—can malfunction or lose power and become effectively useless.
Unlike a mobile device, users rarely have any recourse to actually correct the issue themselves, even if the fix would be as simple as a reboot. Likewise, a mobile device is rarely if ever a user’s sole way to fulfill a given need.
It follows, then, that kiosk software needs to be designed to be much more resilient to issues in the first place, and with this vast difference in user context factored into its design.
Kiosks are generally not user-adjustable
Since kiosks are so often left unattended, it stands to reason that they’re often fixed sturdily to the ground or a wall. Sadly, since kiosks are meant to be shared, one of the hardest compromises is how to manage the physical differences between your users.
In a mobile or even desktop computing situation, you are generally able to reposition each peripheral separately, so if you’re left handed, you simply move the mouse to the opposite side of the keyboard. If you can’t see the screen clearly because of glare or height differences, you grab it and adjust it. If you’re not in the view of the webcam in a Skype chat, you can reposition the camera.
Even beyond those things that affect all of us, there are many factors that affect the accessibility of a computer system to some of us, who through disability or other physical constraint don’t have the same ability to interact with a system as someone else. It often comes as a surprise to iPhone owners to find out that their phones are able to read out each item on screen such that they can be used by blind users. A person of average height probably hasn’t experienced the sorts of alignment issues that a very tall person has when using most ATMs.
In the world of kiosks, though, most of these functions simply aren’t possible. Sadly, that doesn’t stop the problems existing; it just makes users of kiosks more likely to be frustrated while using the system. That serves to amplify any other annoyances that the system might have, and makes carefully-considered design extremely important.
Kiosk hardware varies dramatically
Between ATMs, parking ticketing systems, and wayfinding and other informational kiosks, you’re likely to encounter a wide variety of kiosk systems in your everyday life, and each will have been built using vastly different hardware.
Since kiosk manufacturers assemble kiosks from many components, every kiosk you use has been designed to balance the specific technical, business and user needs of that specific application.
The impact of that, though, is that some touch screens you can activate with a pen or while wearing gloves and others need direct contact with your skin. Some will be poorly calibrated to the point where you’ll need to deliberately aim a little higher or lower than what you’re trying to touch.
And it extends beyond the screen technology itself, too: the height and angle of the display matter too, especially if there’s a built-in camera. Keyboards can range from something familiar to most desktop PC users through to totally-custom on-screen keyboards which behave completely differently. In kiosks that accept payment, some will accept coins and others won’t; others still will accept everything but a 50c coin.
All in all, trying to design and build kiosk software without having solidified the design of the kiosk hardware itself is an impossible task, and one that dramatically affects the likelihood of the software being successful (and usable).
All in all, kiosks are capable of solving a huge number of difficult problems better than any other type of platform, but it takes a huge amount of specialist domain knowledge to avoid the many pitfalls inherent in building kiosk software.
We’re increasingly being surrounded by kiosks and other touch-screen devices. At Studio IQ, it’s our sincere wish that in the future every one of those systems would be well designed around the needs and contexts of their respective users.
If you’re looking at designing (or redesigning) kiosk software yourself, whether or not you already have your hardware figured out, please feel free to contact us!