Kiosks: Passing Fad or Useful Tool?

P> Kiosks, a modern version of the old, freestanding, European enclosures holding posters and other public notices, have been part of the technology landscape since the early 1990s. Corporations and public agencies at all levels are climbing on the bandwagon with pilot projects or full-scale implementations.

Often referred to as "PCs-in-a-box," government is looking at kiosks as a means of providing better service to citizens while facing the budgetary realities of having to do more with less. Similarly, the private sector has initiated with mixed results many projects in the retail, travel, financial services and health-care industries.

The concept is inviting. Place these self-contained, units in populated areas, make them available at least 16 hours a day and allow customers to access information at their own pace. Unfortunately, for every successful kiosk rollout, there have been at least four failures, often running into millions of dollars. The reasons are many: a poorly designed unit offering unappealing, confusing and often unworkable applications: a system where no perceived value is derived; or an unattractive location.

Postal Buddy is an example of a project that was ill-conceived and poorly executed from the beginning. Designed to take mundane tasks away from Postal Service employees and offer new services to customers in a self-service capacity, these units were too expensive and too complex, while offering little value. Letting customers change addresses at the kiosk was a good idea. Offering to print custom address labels, envelopes and stickers was not.

The products for sale were very expensive ($4.95 for 30 address labels) and required more than 20 peripherals. Often unwanted side effects occurred; books of self-adhesive stamps were located at the top of the poorly-vented enclosure and were dispensed permanently fused together.

Any time a problem occurred, the only recourse for the customer was to seek out a postal employee, who could offer no assistance because the units were not owned by the USPS. Not surprisingly, this generated considerable negative publicity. Furthermore, users did not receive change when making a purchase; they received a Metro-like stored value card. The anticipated revenues of $45 per kiosk per day were never achieved, and the units were removed from their pilot locations in San Diego and Washington, D.C.

Although Postal Buddy deserved the bad press it received, there are examples of successful implementations. One of the best is ServiceOntario, the Ministry of Transportation's system of kiosks letting residents renew vehicle registration, get a driver history, pay traffic fines, create personalized license plates, change addresses and obtain a used-car history. After a very successful two-year, eight-kiosk pilot project, IBM Canada won the Phase II contract and is presently installing more than 60 kiosks. Paid advertising is an option under consideration.

Ontario has been very successful in publicizing ServiceOntario by including an information flyer with each renewal notice informing drivers of the kiosks, including locations with addresses and hours of operation.

While ServiceOntario, without doubt, was the best-implemented, most popular and delivered the most value, there are others worthy of mention. These include the Gift Certificate Center, HealthTouch and Arizona's QuickCourt.

Frances D. Mendelsohn is president of Summit Research Associates Inc., a technology assessment firm. The company recently published "Kiosks: The Good, The Bad, and The Boring," its second report on the industry. She can be reached at or

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