This blog post was contributed by Level Access’s Chief Accessibility Officer Jon Avila.
Self-service kiosks are rapidly reshaping the way we shop and engage crucial services in daily life. From self-checkout stations in grocery stores to automated ticketing systems at transportation hubs, kiosks are increasingly replacing traditional face-to-face interactions. In fact, a Walgreens location in Chicago recently made headlines by unveiling a kiosk-only shopping system for all but two aisles’ worth of goods.
There are plenty of reasons for this transformation. Kiosks offer convenience and efficiency for consumers and organizations alike and may support companies’ anti-theft efforts. But when self-service machines aren’t accessible, they can undermine the privacy and security of people with disabilities and expose organizations to legal risks.
In this post, I’ll define what I mean by a “kiosk,” and underscore the growing importance of kiosk accessibility. I’ll also outline key considerations that organizations designing or procuring kiosks should keep in mind to provide barrier-free experiences for all people.
What counts as a “kiosk”?
Self-service kiosks, also called self-service transaction machines (SSTMs) or simply self-service experiences, are machines that individuals can use to complete specific transactions without engaging a human representative. Common examples of kiosks include:
- Vending machines
- Check-in and ticketing stations for air travel and rail, bus, and subway transportation
- Self-checkout machines at grocery stores, pharmacies, and other retail locations
- Check-in stations for specialized services—such as obtaining medical tests or renewing a passport or driver’s license
Why self-service experiences need to serve everyone
Kiosks are everywhere in our daily lives. And as we come to rely on them more, the negative consequences of inaccessible self-service experiences—both for users and organizations—become even more serious.
Inaccessible kiosks compromise users’ privacy and security
Accessibility barriers in some types of kiosks may present an inconvenience for people with disabilities—for instance, an individual who encounters an inaccessible vending machine might have to shop elsewhere for a snack or beverage. But in other cases, they make people vulnerable to serious privacy and security threats. If a hospital visitor is unable to successfully check in for scheduled blood work, for example, they may be forced to disclose sensitive medical information in order to ask for help.
Importantly, SSTMs aren’t the only types of transaction machines that need to be accessible to all users. Even when point-of-sale (POS) devices like PIN pads are managed by people, accessibility barriers may still expose customers with disabilities to risks, from accidentally overtipping to disclosing credit card details. And consumers aren’t the only individuals who are negatively affected by issues with these systems: organizations that rely on inaccessible POS devices also create barriers to employment for people with disabilities.
Kiosk accessibility errors can result in lawsuits
Many organizations have a legal obligation to ensure kiosk accessibility for all users. Under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, federal government agencies must ensure that all information and communication technology (ICT)—including SSTMs—is usable for people with disabilities. And some individual states, such as California, have adopted their own accessibility laws mirroring Section 508. Additionally, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) includes specific accessibility standards for ATMs and fare card machines, and the Air Carrier Accessibility Act (ACAA) outlines accessibility requirements for airlines’ kiosks.
Laws surrounding kiosk accessibility are only positioned to tighten. In September 2022, the U.S. Access Board announced its intent to create specific accessibility guidelines for electronic kiosks, which would apply to both public and private-sector organizations that employ these devices. While these guidelines for kiosk accessibility will not be laws, it’s likely they will be used in future rulemaking.
Key considerations for kiosk accessibility
Whether your organization is in the process of developing new kiosk solutions or evaluating options for procuring and installing them, it’s essential to provide an inclusive experience for all users. And because it’s difficult and costly to retrofit kiosks for accessibility, organizations need to ensure that the kiosks they produce, or purchase, are already built with users’ diverse needs in mind. But what key factors make a kiosk accessible? In this section, I’ll explore kiosk accessibility best practices, spanning from hardware and user interface (UI) design to assistive technology.
Hardware must reflect users’ diverse physical needs
Before they can engage with the digital content of a kiosk, users must be able to interact with its physical infrastructure. After all, even if the software powering a kiosk is barrier-free, if users need assistance from someone else to operate the machine itself, the resulting experience is anything but convenient and secure.
To be accessible, kiosks’ displays should be easy to locate and identify, and positioned at an appropriate range for those who may be seated or have low vision. Controls should also be easily located and placed within reach of all users, and users should also be able to operate controls with minimal force, and with one hand only. Additionally, kiosks should include a speaker or headphone jack for audio output.
Software should be intuitive and adaptable, supporting various types of user interaction
Just as kiosks’ hardware should align with users’ different physical abilities, their software must account for the unique ways in which people experience and engage with digital content.
Unlike other types of digital technology, like websites, kiosks have closed functionality—meaning that, except for a headset, users can’t bring and apply their own assistive technologies (AT) to their kiosk experiences. For this reason, accessibility features like screen reading output and large text need to be built into kiosks’ software, so that users can easily activate them.
Touch targets like buttons must be large and clearly labelled, and color contrast for all user interface (UI) elements should align with accessibility standards. And when video content is part of a self-service experience, organizations should take care to provide captions and audio descriptions, as well as to avoid rapid animation and flashing, which can trigger seizures in some users. Finally, it’s important that kiosks give users sufficient time to complete their transactions. Before a transaction times out, an accessible kiosk will ask a user if they want more time—and then provide additional time as needed.
Additional best practices for kiosk accessibility
When implementing accessible self-service stations, organizations shouldn’t stop at kiosks’ hardware and software—they also need to consider a user’s holistic experience. For instance, it’s important to ensure that all users have enough clear floor space in which to operate a kiosk, and direct staff not to move or block access to kiosks. Organizations also can’t assume self-service experiences are self-explanatory: users should be able to find accessibly formatted instructions (with large-print and braille options) for navigating a system, including directions for activating voice output. And in the case that issues arise with the kiosk’s functionality, users need to be able to obtain assistance from a knowledgeable and trustworthy professional.
Improve convenience without sacrificing compliance
If current trends continue, kiosks will play a key role in the future of customer service. By prioritizing these stations’ accessibility, teams can ensure that this future holds far less risk for consumers and organizations alike. So, what actions can you take to provide accessible self-service experiences?
If your organization purchases kiosks from a vendor, make the accessibility of both hardware and software a guiding factor in your procurement decisions. Consult with an expert accessibility solution provider to gain clarity on the specific requirements your vendor should meet and make an informed decision about the best solution for your users.
Meanwhile, organizations that produce kiosk technology should incorporate accessibility reviews into all stages of design, development, and quality assurance (QA) for hardware and software and perform use case testing with native users of AT. A third-party accessibility expert can conduct these evaluations thoroughly and effectively, and help you quickly resolve any identified issues. By bringing experts into the kiosk creation process as early as possible, vendors can ensure that they proactively address accessibility in design, minimizing the need for retroactive remediation.
A trusted partner
As the market-leading provider of digital accessibility solutions, Level Access’s team of experts will thoroughly review the accessibility of kiosks at any phase of development. Our approach to evaluation consists of functional testing with native AT users, as well as testing for compliance with relevant legal requirements such as the ACAA, Section 508, the ADA, and EN 301 549.
If you’re aiming to purchase a pre-built kiosk, and haven’t yet done so, we’ll equip you with the knowledge and insight you need to make a responsible and inclusive buying decision. If you’ve already procured a solution, we’ll guide you through the conversation you need to have with your vendor. Engage our team today to learn more.
About the Author
Jonathan Avila (CPWA) is the Chief Accessibility Officer at Level Access. He has invested two decades in the digital accessibility field guiding organizations to create inclusive experiences that are usable to a wide range of people with disabilities. Through this work, he has supported accessibility across many different environments including web, mobile, documentation, extended reality, kiosk, and gaming, to empower people with disabilities to live their best lives. Jonathan is a member of the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group of the World Wide Web Consortium and the International Association of Accessibility Professionals. At Level Access, he focuses his time on testing methodology, thought leadership, and internal accessibility program policy to grow and sustain the company’s implementation of an inclusive workplace.
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