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Why this sign sucks if you are late for a train

Category: Blog & News

Metropolitan train stations are busy, high intensity places. Passengers from all walks of life converge with the same slightly stricken look of fear in their eyes. “Will I miss my train?”

Helpful, then, for the station to provide information that is easy to digest at speed.

Not helpful, signage that forces the passenger to stop and perform mental gymnastics to find out which platform they need.

Exhibit A. Flinders St Melbourne

When catching a train there is one essential piece of information you carry – the name of the train line, the “Sandringham line” or “Frankston line” for instance.

So when you turn up to the station all you need to know is from which platform that train line departs.

Easy if the information is sequenced alphabetically because you can skip to S or F to find your platform.

Not easy if, as is the case in Flinders Street, the sign is sequenced by platform number leaving you to read through all the listings until you strike upon the name of your line. Adding to the confusion, the platform numbers are positioned to the right of the line names, leading passengers to the false conclusion that the sign is listed alphabetically.

As a result, on any given day you’ll find a gaggle of slack jawed, tense commuters trying to make sense of this board, creating a traffic blockage and adding friction to what should be a simple, intuitive process.

What it means for your business

The lesson here is that in order to optimise behavioural outcomes (i.e. getting people to do stuff) you need to design information from the point of view of your customer. While the train station might think in terms of platforms, their customers are thinking in terms of train lines.

Further, passengers in a hurry are relying on their System 1 fast thinking brain to make a decision. When this is so crudely interrupted, they switch into System 2 slow thinking, which is more effortful and taxing and puts a dampener on their enjoyment of the experience.

They’ve been taken from “flow” to “slow”, and while they may not be sure why, they’ll be left with the impression that that was harder than it needed to be.

When I conducted a behavioural audit on a large retailer recently for instance, they were making the experience unnecessarily difficult by having things like a ridiculously long-winded self-check out process, signage that was too high for comfortable reading and a separate entry/exit which forced the customer to make a decision about which was the right door.

My question to you, therefore, is what might you be doing to interrupt flow?

What points of friction have you inadvertently* added to your process that might be making it difficult for your customer to do business with you? An ambiguously worded Call to Action? A button that is difficult to spot amongst the clutter on your website? Sliding or animated images that force your customer to stich together a narrative that makes sense? Absent or confusing Point of Sale? Payment processes that require customers to cross their fingers that they won’t get ripped off?

And because it can be difficult to see your business through fresh eyes, feel free to email me if you would like me to look for points of friction in your website, store or collateral.

* There is a role for deliberate friction that you can read about in "When making it hard for customers can be a good thing"

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

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