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Published on June 15th, 2011 | by Rahel Bailie


If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention

My new-ish contract (I’ve been there a couple of months) involves an organization that is ramping up with user experience and content strategy with a serious learning curve. To the credit of the project Director, she is absorbing and integrating the principles and best practices at an intense rate. The title of this post comes from her observations, and she admits that she now finds herself looking at the world through a completely different lens as the UX Manager and I expose her to new principles and ideas. Today’s discussion involved signage in the rapid transit system. It’s a classic intersection of user experience and content strategy, and here’s how it plays out.

Vancouver has a shiny new Canada Lin—a subway train—that runs from the Airport to downtown Vancouver. It’s wonderful. As I live out near the airport, I often take it to work, and it shaves a lot of time off my commute. It’s clean and comfortable, and runs every few minutes. However, there are inherent problems with wayfinding; some of them are usability problems, others are content problems. They are not separable, and work together to create either a good experience or a frustrating one.

Inside the airport, the signage says “Canada Line”. As I walk through the airport, I sometimes wonder how these people around me, many of whom have little or no English, find the transit system. Canada Line could mean “information about Canada by telephone” or some sort of train line. But where does it indicate what the Canada Line actually is: a subway train to Vancouver and to the whole regional transit system?

From inside the train, each transit station looks identical, and station signage is sparse. At rush hour, it’s next to impossible to see station signs through the crowds of people on the platform. Riders must learn to look for the signs inside the train that identify the current stop. It takes a while to realize this, and to counter-intuitive look within the train to learn where you are.

The signage on the platforms tells you which trains are coming. A recording announces that the next train on the “outbound platform is for YVR.” The platforms are not labelled, and in underground stations with several twists and turns down the stairs, who really knows which direction is inbound or outbound? Going north, there is one terminal called Waterfront (in other words, downtown). Going south, there are two possible terminals: YVR (the airport code for Vancouver, though the airport is actually in the suburb of Richmond) or Brighouse (also in Richmond). Going north is no problem. You get on the next train. Going south, you need to choose your train if you are going as far as Richmond. The helpful signage displays an electronic schedule such as:

YVR – Airport – 4 minutes

Richmond-Brighouse –  8 minutes

Richmond-Brighouse – 12 minutes

(This setup could be problematic; some riders see past the first line as its size and boldness are subconsciously interpreted as a title, and they automatically skip to the second line to look for “real information”. But that’s a whole other story, and we wonder whether TransLink did any testing of that.)

However, you are more likely to see a series of messages that say something like:

  • If you drop something on the tracks, don’t retrieve it yourself. See an attendant.
  • Only one bicycle per bicycle area on the train at a time.

The schedule comes around eventually, but your train may have entered and left the station by then.

If you have gotten onto the wrong train, figuring out how to double back and get onto the right train is problematic because of the mapping system inside the train (if you can find one). I know – been there, done that, cursed the entire time.

These may seem like small items, but they’re the crazy-making stuff that ruins your experience. It’s the stuff that makes people post about “the sign says this but what you really need to do is …” and “it’s cute but not too bright…” or “be careful, because if you miss your connecting stop, it takes you an extra 15 minutes to turn yourself around, and believe me, it will happen.”

It doesn’t take much to fix these problems, but it means that someone needs to walk through with a “user experience eye” and make sure that the experience works for all the audiences. For example, the content on the signs could shorten the duration of secondary messages and spend more time on the schedule and train destination. And it means training staff (including whoever is in charge of the electronic platform signage) to follow the guidelines that make the difference between a good user experience and a frustrating one.

Many thanks to Jerome Ryckborst, the UX Manager who collaborated with me on this post, and my project Director, who was the inspiration for this post. Pay attention. Be outraged.


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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,

2 Responses to If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention

  1. Bonnie Willimott says:

    I’m so glad to hear that TransLink is thinking U/X and CS. Their signage issues generalize to the Sky Train, as well. When i first started using it to get to and from work this year I found the Sky Train’s signage to be sparse, confusing, and unhelpful, despite having lived here for most of my life.

    I’ve since tried to help more than one bemused tourist to understand the system.

    I’ve used mass transit it a number of cities, and have never had the challenges I’ve had with TransLink, even on the Paris Metro.

  2. Rahel Bailie says:

    They did some UX, but I wouldn’t say they’re thinking content strategy yet. At least, I haven’t seen any indication of that. But hey, baby steps, baby steps. Once they discover content strategy, they’ll never go back!

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