The empathy gap in self-service kiosk experiences

Posted on April 15, 2019
4 min read


If you’ve traveled by air, used an ATM, indulged in some fast food, visited the DMV, bought groceries, got a car wash, filled up your car with gas, or probably a million other activities, chances are you interacted with a self-service kiosk. Love them or hate them, they’re everywhere and likely will only become more prevalent in our daily lives. As with many ubiquitous aspects of life, common interfaces like these risk being overlooked when it comes to customer experience. One look at a gas station ATM, complete with the standard blue screen, ancient fonts, and misaligned buttons shows just how little effort went into the design of that kiosk. Common as these interactions may be, that’s more reason than not to make sure those experiences are designed with real humans in mind. As our lives become more digital, it’s even more important to make a human connection through experiences whenever possible. The empathy gap that exists between digital experiences and the people interacting with them is a challenge every company has, regardless of what they’re selling. As technology helps us do more faster, it also risks making us feel like just another number and that almost never leads to great customer experience. Self-service kiosks are so prevalent because when designed and used properly, they can make a huge—positive—impact on not only the customers using them but the companies relying on them as well. Kiosks can help reduce wait times, give customers clearer and more varied options, all while reducing the burden on folks usually staffed to help customers one-on-one, freeing them up for more personalized service.

Kiosks can be great—if customers will use them

As the term self-service implies, the experience should be pretty self-explanatory. Customers should be able to walk up to any kiosk for the first time and immediately be able to get what they need with no outside help. A great self-service experience, however, is easier said than designed and executed. When McDonald's rolled out ordering kiosks to their restaurants, the chain, famous for streamlining its operations for maximum efficiency, had high hopes for improving the ordering process for customers and boosting revenue. The company planned to add 1,000 kiosks to stores every quarter. This super-sizing of their investment in the technology is for a compelling reason: customers buy more when they order from kiosks. There’s a catch, though. Not all customers like the experience of ordering their food on a screen. Many customers felt uncomfortable using the kiosks, which required McDonald’s employees to be stationed nearby to assist and discourage them from ordering at the counter. In fact, a poll by MSN found that 78% of consumers surveyed said that they’re less likely to visit a restaurant that has self-service kiosks. The reason? They preferred speaking to a real person when placing their order. This is a perfect example of the empathy gap in action. The technology exists to optimize operations and boost sales for the company, yet isn’t quite hitting the mark when it comes to customer experience. Fortunately, there’s a lot that companies can—and should—do to help bridge this gap, even if they’re not using self-service kiosks yet. Here are a few things to keep in mind when designing kiosk experiences that will keep customers coming back.

Understand customer apprehensions

Self-service kiosks may primarily be designed to streamline processes and reduce overhead for the companies using them, their success or failure depends solely on customer adoption and usability. Although McDonald’s knew that orders increased when kiosks were used, that wouldn’t do them much good if most of their customers opted for Burger King because they didn’t like using the kiosks. Take the opportunity to conduct discovery interviews with your target audience. Ask them what they like or dislike about using self-service kiosks. Are they unsure how to navigate the screen? Are they overwhelmed with the number of options? Does the process feel like it takes too long? Are they worried about taking work away from employees? A series of one-on-one interviews will uncover a lot about what may encourage or discourage customers from using kiosks. Once you have a solid understanding of what’s holding them back you can start coming up with ideas and prototypes to mitigate those concerns and accentuate any perceived benefits.

It’s part of your omnichannel experience

Websites and apps naturally come to mind when thinking about a consistent omnichannel experience, but kiosk experiences need to be part of that strategy too. Stepping up to a kiosk should make customers feel like they’re still dealing with the brand they know and trust. That means relying on the same branding, design, and content guidelines used for other devices or platforms. While the screens customers are interacting with will likely be different in form and function from other devices customers are used to, the interactivity, flow, and brand feel should be as similar as possible to the experience customers are already used to help get them comfortable using a new platform. Conduct remote tests to compare what customers like or dislike when comparing various touchpoints to uncover any gaps between experiences.

Keep it simple

This rule can apply to most things in life, but when it comes to kiosk experiences it's especially important. With self-service interfaces, customers are expected to essentially create their own customer experience. Make the navigation too complex and customers will feel like they can’t achieve a simple goal, like ordering a cheeseburger or fries. Everything in the design should naturally lead customers to their goal—just like any other interface they’re used to interacting with.

Human insight transcends technology

Technology and human nature will always be in a state of change. Whether it’s on a website, app, or kiosk, there’s no algorithm or program that can accurately predict how our wants and needs will evolve. The only way to stay connected with current—and future—generations is to tap into human insight at every stage of your product development cycle.

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To learn how UserTesting can help you understand your customers through on-demand human insight, contact us here.

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