Kiosks vs Kiosks
Why do some kiosks appeal, whilst others are frankly just repulsive? I have this weird relationship with kiosks in public places. As a classically trained interaction designer I am compulsively attracted and start poking them to see how they react to my avances. Some kiosk types such as ticket dispensers and ATMs are utilitarian and are aimed to speed up purely functional transactions. Other types aim to guide the public to their destinations or attract passerby’s to engage with one or another dynamic brand.
It’s incredible what kind of mess there is out there. Sometimes to the point of being hilariously tragic. Many kiosk variations are present in public spaces. After more than two decades of various types of displays one would expect that engaging and usable versions are commonplace. Take for example the ticket kiosks for the Heathrow express and how many iterations and changes of language it took to achieve a reasonably usable system … and it’s still not quite there. Quite often it is not about the overall idea of placing a kiosk in a particular environment, but it comes down to small details in the implementation and the successive management of the set-up that determines acceptance and success.
It’s about time we create a Michelin-Star type rating for public services with a special section dedicated to kiosks and websites.
Mind you these systems are rather expensive to implement. In the professional press and in marketing blurbs most of these systems are praised as the ultimate in customer service and brand representation. But, if you look underneath the hood it is consistently a ragbag of off-the-shelf components, clumsily assembled and arranged according to limited space into a custom made shell. So why is it, that quite often the implementation of the interaction is left to someone who has been playing around in Powerpoint, or these days, an intern in his second term using Flash? I am regularly baffled by the logic of navigating the menu on most kiosks. It seems that few ever applied serious user testing. And with user testing I don’t mean just being able to perform a given task, but actually taking into account the whole environment, the role it fulfills in the complete user experience, in which the kiosk is placed. I will get back to this with various examples in future posts. I will also discuss in another post how things go seriously wrong when the UI on kiosks is laid out in such a way, that value added services are pushed to the top and the actual purpose of the kiosk is hardly to discover.
An excellent recent example of the good and the bad are the information kiosks placed at the new international train terminal of the Eurostar at St Pancras in London and the kiosks found spread around the new Westfield Shopping Mall in White City, West London.
Both fulfill similar functions; find a store or service around you, locate the toilets, highlight any events and push some advertisements etc. Both are located in very dense, high footfall environments.
I’ve spent some time observing the use by the public of these kiosks and one thing is immediately evident. Whilst the kiosks in St Pancras attract the occasional passerby, the kiosks at Westfield are in constant use.
So here is my thinking, purely empirical and subjective:
- Placement of the kiosks
St Pancras – Nowhere near any main entrances and always just out of the way of high footfall areas like escalators. One actually has to almost search for them even when they are highly visible standing throughout the environment. On the other hand, there is little incentive to use them as most of the few shops and services are located along a linear path from the various entrances to the platforms and you will eventually bump into what you may or may not be looking for.
Westfield – The kiosks are exactly where you expect them, at dominant locations in the center of entrance areas and on major crossways. One reason for the popularity of the way finding kiosks may be that design specifications of the rest of the environment did not allow to easily find shops whilst scanning the alleys. There are no signs protruding into the corridors, so one needs to stand almost in front of the stores before being able to identify them.
- Physical design
St Pancras – The kiosk totems reflect an early nineties design sensibility. Large vertical units trying to fullfil multiple way-finding and information tasks. There are two screens mounted above each other. On top, a general information streaming display, with time, weather and departure info, arranged in portrait format. Below, a touch screen in landscape format, suggesting some kind of relationship between the two screens where there is none. On multiple visits I noticed that some of the displays were out of order. In case you are not aware where you are, the designers ensured to splash the St Pancras name/logo in a prominent position on the totem, instead of using this space for meaningful labels to identify, for example, different meeting location throughout the station.
Westfield – This is seriously clever design. The light, almost fragile modern look. The two sides of the kiosk at different angles and slightly different heights to accomodate different user requirements. The table-like setting allows the users to maintain awareness of the environment without having their views blocked. The angle of the displays actually invites to linger and try different options. I am not sure about glare and reflections on the screen but it didn’t seem to bother users too much. I believe the units have been supplied by the BF group but I can’t figure out who designed the units or who actually provided the user interface other than that the original signage for the mall was designed by the Portland Group. The materials used in the Kiosks seems to be the Corian-like LG Hi-Macs which is used all-over the mall. Unfortunately we’ve spotted on some repeat visits some tension chipping around the displays on a few kiosks.
- User interface design
St Pancras – Why do designers always try to re-invent the world just when about everyone has got used to one or another interface navigation standard? The main navigation menu button is situated at the bottom right, at about hip-hight, nicely out of sight for most users. More annoyingly each time you press the menu on the touch display a short animation shows a set of button choices stumbling to arrange themselves into a list. If I am in a hurry to reach my train and I have to wait again and again for a 3 second transition to pass by whilst I am navigating the menu, I will soon abandon the kiosk. And what does this animation say about the St Pancras terminal brand? Apart from the placement of the Menu button did the designers actually consider it to be good practice to hide the most common menu options from view, so that the users have no clue what options are available at a glance at any time during interaction with the kiosks. I fully support simple looking interfaces but in this case, out of sight is out of mind .It seems that the content and some of the navigation is provided by completely different agencies not working to the same style spec.
Westfield – Even if the touch displays seem not to be as responsive as they used to be shortly after opening, you generally get what you are looking for. Not that it will be any easier to find the actual physical location afterwards. The interface to send a way-finding message to your mobile is probably one of the best implementations I’ve seen so far. Sure one can disagree with the level of menu options in the menu bar at the top that includes of al things “jobs”, or the wording of the bread crumbs underneath the menu, but overall this is a very decent job. I still don’t know who designed the UI but whilst browsing I came across terabyte from New Zealand who did an at least great looking UI for Westfield kiosks in NZ.
There can much more be said on a heuristic level of these two similar, but yet again very different kiosk experiences, but this sums up some of the key issues with current kiosks or info-pods, or whatever you want to name these in public spaces.