Woman wearing mask using touchless kiosk

Mobile Apps Help Consumers Avoid COVID-19-Contaminated Public Touchscreens 

By Stephanie Van Ness and Mark Hatch

Contact-less processes that enhance the user experience are essential in light of COVID-19. Join us August 13 for a live webinar exploring technology that allows you to deliver peace of mind for your customers.

Despite strides made in terms of access to PPE, availability of virus-killing cleaning products and widespread acceptance of hand-washing protocols, COVID-19 continues to make people uncomfortable when using public touchscreen devices, such as ATMs. The fear of infection has compelled many consumers to change their behavior or go out of their way to avoid interacting with public touchscreens that might provide a vector for disease. 

That’s a troubling development for brands that currently use touchscreen user interfaces in their products, from beverage dispensers to ticket kiosks. It’s also an issue for companies building new devices. Certainly, a lot of brands have (or will) incorporate voice and gesture-recognition technology as a way to allow customers to use devices while reducing physical interaction with potentially contaminated surfaces. 

But, these interfaces have limitations — in particular, a sometimes-steep learning curve. A consumer needs to learn what voice commands work, or needs to practice and remember specific gestures relevant to an individual device. That may be too big of an ask for today’s busy consumers.

For this reason, these mechanisms may be appropriate in a professional environment, say gesture controls in a surgical suite, but their success in consumer-facing devices may be limited — even despite the omnipresence of Alexa.

So, how can you get your customers to interact with your touch-powered devices without actually touching them? 

Technology like that used in Amazon’s AmazonGo touchless concept stores, for instance, is one solution. These stores nearly remove touch completely from the shopping experience. Consumers walk through the retail space with a typical shopping experience. But, in an AmazonGo store the items consumers select from the shelves, from ripe bananas to kombucha, are matched to a data set so that when the shopper exits the store with their haul, their card is automatically debited. No need to engage with a cashier. In fact, no need to check out at all. 

Another interesting new technology is “Air Touch” by Gestoos, which adds a sensor to existing touch devices to allow consumers to interact by moving their finger in the air in front of the device. This Tony Stark-like interaction provides a touch-like interaction while completely avoiding contact with the device. Though a business may choose to make some application and UX changes to their device in order to fully leverage this innovative tech, Air Touch preserves their existing investment in field-deployed hardware.

Try Companion Apps

Mobile companion apps are another solution worth considering as they are cost-effective, quick to deploy and rely on mature technology. These companion apps control public devices, say an information kiosk or vending machine, but run on a user’s personal mobile device. That means consumers can easily access products and services from a public device by touching only their own phone or tablet — a concept that has exploded in popularity in the last few months. 

Businesses everywhere are looking for innovative ways to offer customers a touch-free experience. For instance, many restaurants now offer menus and wine lists patrons can view on their personal devices using a QR code. Similarly, many hotels have introduced technology that allows guests to check into their rooms via mobile app. Since their phone unlocks the door to their room, no physical keycards or face-to-face interactions with reception are needed. 

Not only does this type of companion app technology deliver peace of mind for consumers, it provides a competitive advantage for the business owner. Imagine you’re a bank with an ATM out front. Even though you send an employee out into the lobby every hour to clean the machine, your customers are reluctant to touch a public device so they avoid using your machines. At the same time, your competitor across the street deploys a next-gen ATM that can be operated touch-free. A consumer walks up and rather than touching the potentially grubby screen, pairs the ATM with a companion app on his or her mobile device to activate and securely control the ATM. Which experience do you think consumers will prefer?

Certainly, the concept of companion apps is not new. At ICS, we’ve developed numerous companion apps over the past decade, including one for a coffee franchise to allow caffeine-starved consumers to order and pay for their java via their mobile phones. We developed another for a Tier 1 automaker that saw using personal mobile devices as a way to afford consumers control of their vehicles (think remote start, locking the doors etc.) while reducing the automaker’s manufacturing costs. 

What is new is the relevance these projects have today as society’s comfort level with public consumer devices diminishes. We’ve seen firsthand that the pandemic has spurred sudden and significant interest in software applications that enable a private device to interact with public interfaces. To wit, in the past several weeks we’ve had a number of customers inquire about creating a companion app for their existing consumer-facing touch devices.

The Right Product Strategy

Fear of virus transmission from touching public surfaces is a game-changer. If you’re supplying a device that is meant to be used by multiple, unrelated consumers, you need a product strategy that addresses the competitive changes facing us in a COVID-19 and post-pandemic world. Without such a strategy, you may experience a severe disruption in the final phase of product distribution — delivery to your consumer. But with the right strategy, a huge opportunity to disrupt your market and capture greater market share is looking you squarely in the eye.

For more on public touchscreens in this time of novel coronavirus, read COVID-19 Gives Voice and Gesture UIs New Relevance and Lose the Ewww: How to Clean Customer-Facing Touchscreens to Reduce COVID-19 Risk. And be sure to register for our August 13 live webinar Don’t Touch! Touchless Interactions in the Post-COVID World.