I blogged a couple of years ago about the uselessness of signs telling people not to run in the train station. My point: people don’t run in the station because they think it’s fun, or because they’re unaware of the dangers; they run in the station because the passenger experience encourages people to run, and posters saying the opposite will do very little to change that.
My broader point: words, however persuasively written, will not achieve behavioural change on their own. It doesn’t really matter if your tone is instructive or admonitory or humorous; words on their own will not achieve behavioural change.
That might sound odd coming from someone who makes her living as a writer and editor. Actually, I’m a huge believer in the power of words to change behaviour – in context. But when I see organisations hiding behind words instead of doing anything useful, I’m going to call it out.
Every now and then, someone tweets another example of a poster warning people that falling over is bad, and then some loyal friend of mine shares my Don’t tell me not to run in the station blog post with them and we all share a collective sigh about the victim-blaming. (I Storified a recent collection of tweets about this).
Matt Tancock asks why First Great Western are naming and shaming people who fell over while struggling to get buggies and prams off trains and points out the irony of putting up these posters while offering no actual help for people with buggies.
What kind of person changes their behaviour as a result of buggy-shaming? Someone who’s perfectly capable of getting themselves, child, buggy and luggage down the steps of a train, but might still fail at this simple task because travelling with a small child has left them relaxed to the point of carelessness? Oh, but this devil-may-care buggy-wrangler still has a conscience and can be jolted back into a sense of responsibility by a really well-written poster. In other words, it’s a highly unlikely scenario. But that’s OK, because the buggy-shaming posters aren’t intended to work. They’re just there to make it look as if First Great Western is doing something about falls. They’re there instead of any positive action to reduce falls.
Imagine you’re struggling to get a buggy with your child in it down a set of steps so you can get off a train. What would you prefer?
- a) A ramp?
- b) Someone to help you?
- c) A poster reminding you that the task you’re currently struggling with is dangerous as well as difficult and stressful?
Bad luck for anyone who picked a or b. Having staff on the platform to help with buggies and get ramps out as a matter of routine would require a lot of extra resources. It’s way cheaper just to put up a poster and shift the blame to you!
And now, a positive example of how you can change passenger behaviour for the better. I’ve written before about how you can stop people heading to their platform too early (with the specific example of Platform 2 at Oxford station):
A user-focused approach would find different ways to stop everybody heading to the platform too early. My instinct is that a lack of information and the generally mean atmosphere of stations makes people jumpy, which makes them early. Build in some reassurance and you might change behaviour that way. A guarantee that trains will NEVER leave early would be a start, but ultimately you'll need a bigger platform and/or more non-platform space for people to wait in. More seats. Put back the clock that they inexplicably removed from Platform 1 - maybe being able to look up and instantly see what time it is makes people less jumpy about waiting, less likely to head to the platform stupidly early. Maybe good, reasonably priced coffee and somewhere to sit and drink it has the same effect. Maybe a sign asking people not to head to the platform too early would help. I don't know, but you can find out what works through user testing.
A few months after I wrote that, I discovered that the MBTA (the Boston transport authorities) had been experimenting with the crazy, radical, it’ll-never-work measure of giving passengers more information. They installed countdown clocks telling subway passengers when to expect the next train.
Surveys suggest a 15 percent jump in passenger satisfaction.
But businesses have been cashing in on the clocks, too: Without fretting that a train is imminent, customers are more willing to cool their heels and enjoy the wait with a cup of joe or a doughnut in hand.
Who would have thought that passengers who are no longer deprived of key information relating to their journey would be more “patient” and “relaxed”?
It’s clear they haven’t thought through all the ramifications of human behaviour, though – the article goes on to report people going down the subway escalator just far enough to get a glimpse of the countdown clock, then realising there’s time to visit Dunkin’ Doughnuts and sprinting back up the escalator. But you could solve that by having more than one countdown clock per station – one for underground and one or two more above ground.
The countdown clocks at subway stations proved so successful that the MBTA extended the idea to bus stations too.