By CHAIM YUDKOWSKY Business Week 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, allowing kiosks to function as very sophisticated stationary robots that can communicate and even interact with a user. How can kiosks be used? There are public-entity and corporate applications for kiosks. Public 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. This can reduce lines at Motor Vehicle Administration offices statewide, while improving the residents’ experience with the agency. Corporate uses include advertising, or providing information or the ability to process a transaction. For example, early adopters of kiosks have been hotels, car rental businesses, and even airports that focus on informing (i.e., giving directions on tourist sites, or telling people where to eat) or advertising to travelers who 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 and temporaries 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. 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 automated teller machines is not equal. It goes back to the old 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 that a reader, Tom Sullivan of InterMedia, has developed is shelf-mounted or freestanding units for the retail environment that will promote and provide add-ins to consumers making specific purchase decisions. Those purchase contexts directly determine the placement of the unit. 2) Use issues. The KISS notion (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is critical for a well-designed kiosk. Thus, it must be a workhorse, 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. Determine how much text is appropriate per screen, based on the chosen screen size. Consider the worst eyesight of users. – How will it sound? Sound should be clear and audible in the kiosks’ intended location. Consider the closed-caption option for the hard of hearing. – Will users interact, and if so, how? Will they use a keyboard, a touch screen, or both? Consider placement of input devices at an appropriate height for the wheelchair-bound. – Will it be designed to recognize return users? If yes, what means of personalization will it use a card or something else? – Will the user leave with something? If yes, usually that involves addressing printing equipment and printing speed, clarity, and reliability. 3) Technological architecture. In defining the kiosk’s operations, you must address the technologies it will use. Those will be directed by answers to usage plans. 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: RF (Radio frequency), WAN (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. Some companies, like that of reader Tom Kuegler of Skyline Network Technologies Inc., will design to order. Others have patented small footprint designs that are flexible in answering all the other issues. 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. Kiosks are going to be a ubiquitous way of staying informed and interacting in the coming years. Some day soon, you too will be an everyday user. Chaim Yudkowsky, CPA, is the director of management consulting services at Grabush, Newman & Co., P.A., a Baltimore-based regional certified public-accounting and management-consulting firm.