Transit Design: The Brand of a City (Part 3)

Published by Philip Lenger on October 15, 2019 - 0 comments

This is a continuation of a series of thoughts from my Transit Design Journal. Previous entries available here.

Customer Happiness by Traveler Type

The biggest complaints by transit passengers vary depending on the profile of the traveller, but generally fall into 2 main categories: service/maintenance issues (such as delays, not enough service or cleanliness) and confusion issues (site navigation, carrier questions, or time/track/gate/terminal confusion). 

Further – the complaints generally (and logically) correspond to 3 traveller ‘types’, Frequent / Occasional / and Novice customers. Note that in this case ‘novice’ is not someone unfamiliar with travel in general, just unfamiliar with this particular station, terminal or environment.

Frequent travelers know how to navigate a specific terminal, but have issues when there are disruptions to their regular service. They don’t really rely on wayfinding as they know their way around. They also generally know the timing of their expected service so they may only use information displays occasionally. They are also more likely to have mobile, dynamic information about their specific journey. Frequent travelers aren’t typically confused about their time in transit, except when they are unaware or uninformed about deviations from standard service.

Conversely, novice travelers have a higher tolerance to service interruptions (they’ve typically scheduled a bit more time), but have a certain expectation of being able to figure out how to get the information they need. Remember, in our case, ‘novice’ doesn’t necessarily mean an unseasoned traveller, just one that is unfamiliar with this particular environment. Novice travelers bring an expectation for a baseline amount of ‘logic’ or discoverability to an environment – “I should be able to figure out how to get from A to B by observing signage and utilizing ‘standard’ information displays.”  If those expected components are not present or accurate, or are made less apparent or obscured, then the confusion factor skyrockets. Customer happiness goes down.

As Environmental Designers, we don’t have a lot of ability to affect service disruptions, but we do feel that we can solve a large percentage of the confusion issues through good design and operations strategies. By studying the psychology of human behavior in a given space and applying smart environmental design, we can make transit spaces more user friendly – fostering higher customer satisfaction levels.

Solving for Confusion – Designing ‘Simple’ is Hard

It’s funny to me that I’m even pointing this next bit out because it seems like “common sense”, but we all have stories about “design committees” and how sometimes logic and sense goes out the window. 

In a recent transit project, we were charged with solving a problem where passengers were having a great deal of confusion getting from point A to B. As is typical, one of the more popular suggestions was to add some signage to solve the problem. This time, the suggestion was to “add some bigger signs”. It was funny to me because there were already existing directional signs in the space with the exact  information the committee was proposing to add. The real problem, in our assessment, was that over time, an additional plethora of ‘non-essential’ signage (offers, promotions, services, and evergreen bulletins) had cropped up in the space surrounding all the directional signage. It was becoming an overgrown garden of signage that sorely needed weeding out. You can imagine the idea of adding more signs was sounding like a big mess.

The truth is, confusion is as much a product of too much information (distraction) as it is not having the correct info available. The strategy of adding signs is intended to solve the problem of not having the correct info available. It’s harder for planners imagine that a second solution might be to edit signage – take away distractions so that the existing, correct signage stands out more.

Here’s a parallel that illustrates the concept: when you are listening to music and you would like to hear more bass, there are 2 ways to accomplish it – the first is to turn up the bass (obvious), and the second is to turn down the treble. Both are doing the same task, except adding more bass increases the total volume (and maybe distortion) as well. This may or may not be desirable, but you have a choice.

This analogy is somewhat true with visual communications: to bring attention to certain messaging you can add more or bigger signs, OR you can remove competing signs and distractions. Both can work, but one creates more volume of information. 

In growing and evolving transit environments, signage confusion is traditionally within the control of the original design team, but over time becomes more of a problem with the oversight and caretaking of the environment. Inefficient signage promotes confusion – Communications efficiency is an elusive art.

As an Environmental Designer,
how can you simplify your visual language?

Is there room to be even more efficient with the design? 

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