Consumer Behaviour,Innovation & Technology
• 7 minute read

Why Do Smart Kiosks Make People Feel Embarrassed?

Wan, Lisa C.(尹振英), Chan, Elisa Ka-yan(陳家欣)

CUHK study finds that customers, anticipating embarrassment, avoid using interactive kiosks, but certain queue designs may help

By Pan Jingyi, Principal Writer, China Business Knowledge@CUHK

With the COVID-19 pandemic casting a shadow on high-contact services, the use of interactive kiosks to service customers has exploded as companies seek ways to recover. A recent report estimated that the global interactive kiosk market size was valued at US$28.45 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow at an annual rate of 7.1 percent from 2022 to 2030.

Interactive kiosks are computer terminals which allow users to perform specific tasks such as ordering food, executing transactions, and completing self-check-in tasks. While the technology may offer consumers an added level of convenience in accessing a company’s products and services, they are not the preferred mode of service interaction for many, even for consumers who are tech-savvy. For example, one poll has found that 70 percent of respondents would avoid using self-service kiosks if there was a service counter staffed by a person, provided the queues were of comparable length.

“The inconvenient truth is that as more and more businesses implement interactive kiosks, it’s becoming increasingly likely that customers may be using them against their own preferences.” – Prof. Lisa Wan

So why are customers reluctant to use interactive kiosks and what can companies do to improve their experience? These are the questions that a group of researchers at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School sought to answer in a new research paper titled Smart Technology vs. Embarrassed Human: The Inhibiting Effect of Anticipated Technology Embarrassment, co-written by Lisa Wan, Associate Professor at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management and the Department of Marketing, and Elisa Chan Ka-yan, Assistant Professor at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management, both at CUHK Business School. They were joined by Prof. Shannon Yi Xiao, a former CUHK Business School PhD candidate who is now at The University of Macau.

“The inconvenient truth is that as more and more businesses implement interactive kiosks, it’s becoming increasingly likely that customers may be using them against their own preferences,” says Prof. Wan, adding that this would likely hamper the user experience. “That’s why it’s important to understand why customers may be reluctant to use them.”

Anticipated Technology Embarrassment

To understand why consumers may be reluctant to use interactive kiosks, the researchers conducted both observational field studies and lab experiments in Asia and the U.S. They found that most customers in a fast food restaurant and a grocery store in shopping centres in Asia chose manned counters rather than the self-service kiosks. But when the business implemented a single-queue design for multiple kiosks, more customers used them. They then sought to explain this phenomenon as “anticipated technology embarrassment” that are unique to customer-technology encounters.

Interactive kiosks are computer terminals which allow users to perform specific tasks such as ordering food, executing transactions, and completing self-check-in tasks.
Interactive kiosks are computer terminals which allow users to perform specific tasks such as ordering food, executing transactions, and completing self-check-in tasks.

But why do consumers feel embarrassed even when they are merely contemplating using self-service technology? The research team reasoned that this was because society has cultivated strong beliefs that technologies are “smart” – from smartphones to smart cities. The research results supported this claim by showing that when a service failure occurs, observers were more inclined to blame the person using the kiosk (the customer) rather than the machine. This behaviour defies the customer norm to blame the service provider (for example, an employee) when a service failure happens. “In a sense, many of us might be predisposed to the notion that technologies like artificial intelligence are smarter than us. We somehow assume that they are designed to be perfect,” Prof. Chan explains, adding that in reality, no service encounter is foolproof.

In fact, the researchers noted that a consumer would probably feel more like a “performer” than someone being served when using interactive kiosks. This performer mindset is typical in situations where people think that they are under social scrutiny. “Interactive kiosks are normally set up in public areas, and the process of using them can easily be observed by others, which makes users feel they are the centre of attention,” says Prof. Chan.

Delving into the ‘Performer’ Mindset

This performer mindset can be strengthened or reduced by queue design, public self-consciousness, and queue distraction. To examine how queue design influenced people’s willingness to use kiosks, the team compared the effectiveness of two designs: one where customers waited in a single line to use multiple kiosks, and another where each kiosk had its own separate line and customers queued in parallel. The results confirmed that customers were less willing to use kiosks with parallel queues. “In a parallel queue, people next in line are usually keeping a close eye on when the user in front of them will finish,” says Prof. Chan, adding that, on the other hand, people in the single-queue configuration are likely to apportion their attention to multiple kiosks and their users. Hence, consumers may feel increased scrutiny when interacting with service kiosks arranged in a parallel-lines configuration.

“Many of us might be predisposed to the notion that technologies like artificial intelligence are smarter than us.” – Prof. Elisa Chan Ka-yan

Moreover, people who are more self-consciousness in public are usually more concerned about how others see them, and this can bring out the performer mindset and exacerbate anticipated technology embarrassment. In one of the experiments, the research team found that the performer mindset was the strongest when social scrutiny is amplified by both the external environment (queue design) and an individual’s tendency (public self-consciousness). Consequently, customers who were highly self-conscious were less willing to use interactive kiosks when they had to wait in queues configured into parallel lines, because they expected to experience more anticipated technology embarrassment.

Although the research might have highlighted the superiority of a single-line-multiple kiosks setup, in practice, space and other constraints may make the less desirable parallel-line setting the only option. Such businesses may consider the use of distractions in queues to manage the performer mindset. Distractions, such as screens with advertisements, to occupy customer attention when waiting in line, can help to reduce anticipated technology embarrassment because customers would assume that others’ attention are preoccupied. The results further confirmed that in parallel-line queues, distractions were successful in increasing the willingness to use interactive kiosks even for customers who were very self-conscious in public.

Reducing Consumer Embarrassment

Besides extending research to show that customers anticipate embarrassment not only when they are buying sensitive products but also when interacting with technology, Prof. Wan notes the study has significant implication for companies making use of interactive kiosks to serve customers in their daily operations.

The research team reasoned that consumers' performer mindsets can be strengthened or reduced by queue design.
The research team reasoned that consumers’ performer mindsets can be strengthened or reduced by queue design.

First off, to reduce the chances of consumers experiencing embarrassment as a result of using self-service technology, they suggest managers to implement single-line queue systems to disperse the attention of the waiting customers. But if they must deploy parallel lines, they can seek to reduce potential customer embarrassment by employing distractions near queues such as digital signage boards with animated advertisements. “The key is to create an environment where customers feel they are not performing in front of others, which can help to reduce their anticipated technology embarrassment,” Prof. Wan says. Additionally, the study suggests that maximising the distance between the queue and the kiosks, as well as making the customer interaction process more private (such as through the use of privacy screen protectors) could also be effective.

Addressing the benefit from consumers’ perspective, Prof. Wan notes that their research can help people better understand why interactive kiosks in public areas are often underutilized. “Actually, these embarrassing situations may only be happening in customers’ imaginations, and other people may not think this way. I hope our research can encourage people to be less self-conscious in a healthy manner,” says Prof. Wan, adding that in most occasions, consumers may simply be overthinking.

Prof. Wan concludes that traditionally, Asians are thought to be more concerned about impression management in front of others. “One may expect that anticipated technology embarrassment would more likely be experienced by Asians than Westerners,” she says. However, this research found evidence of anticipated technology embarrassment in both Asians and Westerners when interacting with smart kiosks. This finding thus suggests that anticipated technology embarrassment, a concept that has been flying under the radar in service technology discussion, warrants more attention for businesses around the world.


Wan, Lisa C.(尹振英)

Associate Professor
Acting Director, School of Hotel and Tourism Management
Co-Director, Centre for Hospitality and Real Estate Research


Chan, Elisa Ka-yan(陳家欣)

Assistant Professor

Research Paper

Smart Technology vs. Embarrassed Human: The Inhibiting Effect of Anticipated Technology Embarrassment

Want even more insights?

Enjoy the best and most relevant articles monthly with a subscription to CBK's digest.