Finger interacting with a touchless technology solution instead of a public touchscreen

Touchscreens: Business as Usual Isn’t an Option

Covid-19 has dramatically changed consumers' perception of the hygiene risks of touchscreens in self-serve kiosks. Saurabh Gupta, Director of Out-of-Home Product at Ultraleap, explores the likely business impact – and the importance of developing touchless interfaces.

“Flying out of Newark,” wrote a doctor in the Guardian newspaper on March 20, “I found myself in a departure terminal where every table was festooned with tablet computers on stalks … All food and all payment was to be ordered by touching the tablets. Maybe they wipe them clean regularly, I thought, as I watched a kid pick his nose then start playing with the screen.”

This comment, and many more like it, illustrate a rapid change in consumer perceptions of the hygiene risks of touchscreens in interactive kiosks. 78% of US consumers and 81% of UK consumers now think that public touchscreens are unhygienic.

There have been concerns raised about hygiene before – a widely reported 2018 study found fecal bacteria on the touchscreens of fast-food kiosks. However, these concerns did not result in significant changes to consumer behavior.

No longer. Across the world people are voting with their feet – or rather, their hands. We’re all resorting to a multitude of low-fi hacks to avoid our hands coming into contact with public surfaces. Press and social media are full of advice on how to stay safe while shopping. Only around 50% of people say they would be likely to interact with public touchscreens in the future. 

Woman using touchless technology instead of a public touchscreen
Consumers are becoming wary of interacting with screens that thousands of people have touched before.

It’s possible, of course, that once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed we will all revert to previous behaviors. But it seems unlikely. COVID-19 "is one of those rare events that could have wide-ranging, long-term impacts,” Chris Schreiner, director of user experience innovation at Strategy Analytics, told Investor's Business Daily. “You would think consumers would be rather wary of interacting with something that thousands of people had touched before them."

It’s hard not to think that the business impact of this will be huge. At the most fundamental level, if people are reluctant to touch public screens, that’s going to make them less likely to interact or make a purchase. Staffing needs will also be increased – responsible retailers and venues will be cleaning and disinfecting self-serve kiosks extremely frequently.

Lady touching a dirty touchscreen
When people are hyper-aware of the hygiene risks of public touchscreens, they’re less likely to interact or make a purchase.

There’s also the question of negative brand associations. If consumers are given little alternative but to interact using an ATM or gas-station kiosk when they don’t feel comfortable doing so, how will that affect their perception of the brand that requires them to do this?

We can’t go back to a world where the only option is a staffed cash register or check-in desk. (With person-to-person transmission a more common way to catch COVID-19 than surfaces, these are often no more appealing to consumers than self-serve kiosks, anyway.)

Finding ways for consumers to use self-serve options without coming into contact with them is likely to be one of the features determining which businesses successfully navigate their way out of the COVID-19 crisis – and which fall by the wayside.

Ultraleap out-of-home
Gesture control powered by hand tracking and mid-air haptics is one way consumers can interact with public screens without coming into contact with surfaces.

More contactless interfaces and interactions was the first of Forbes’ predictions for a post-coronavirus world. These include voice control, gesture controls powered by hand tracking and mid-air haptics, and contactless mobile systems. They’re all ways retailers and manufacturers can innovate, and successfully evolve self-serve kiosks.  

It’s touchscreens that have enabled widespread consumer adoption of self-serve kiosks. But in a world where consumers are hyper-aware of the hygiene risks of shared surfaces, we now need to be thinking about touchless interfaces, touchless technology, and the next step towards the kiosks of the future.

For self-serve kiosks, going back to business as usual once the pandemic is over isn’t an option.

Saurabh Gupta leads Product and Commercial Strategy for the out-of-home sector for Ultraleap.

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