Talking passengers’ language during disruption

09 March 2020

Following my blog on information during disruption in Wales I wanted to look at the wider issue. What works and what doesn’t? How can train operators better ‘speak’ to passengers?

Passengers tell us that they like hearing a ‘human voice’ when things go wrong on the railway. This can be both for reassurance that what they’re seeing on screens is correct or for advice about what to do. So why does the railway produce messages that passengers consider to be robotic and insincere?

Last summer a colleague gave a presentation at a customer information conference on the importance of getting tone and language right when speaking to customers. This was about rail passengers, but the principle could easily be extended to any mode of transport or service industry more generally. You can see the slides here.

The rail industry has received poor ratings from passengers for how it handles disruption for many years. Despite some significant efforts, satisfaction with ‘how well the train company deals with delays’ has only shifted from 38 per cent in spring 2014 to 41 per cent in autumn 2019.

Obviously, passengers will never be satisfied when their journey is delayed but it should be possible to reduce their level of dissatisfaction. The way train operators handle disruption is the biggest single reason for dissatisfaction and information plays a massive role.

Just 46 per cent of rail passengers are satisfied with the usefulness of the information they received about their delayed journey, which is pretty damming.

We regularly look at the quality of written delay information provided by train operators. Audits are done of all the messages sent out by an operator during the course of an incident. We then give feedback on how we think the messages could have been better based on talking to passengers as part of our research.

Can you make sense of this?

“Passengers requiring Station A are advised to circulate via Station B or change at Station C for rail services to Station D

Yes the station names have been removed, but if you weren’t familiar with them in the first place it wouldn’t make a difference what they were called.

Are the phrases ‘ticket acceptance’, ‘ticket easement’ and ‘traction current’ (to mention just three) immediately self-explanatory to everyone?

In the world of accessibility the phrase ‘inclusive design’ is often used. Make a building physically accessible to a wheelchair user and it should be accessible to those with and without physical impairments. Language should be no different. Make messages short and simple so everyone will understand them – they don’t need to be long and formal.

The rail industry has a fantastic ability to send mixed messages to passengers during disruption:

“Please continue to travel as normal but allow extra time to complete your journey”

It’s a common word, but what does normal mean? I think they meant trains are running but allow extra time because there’ll be delays.

In 2017 Transport Focus sent a selection of disruption messages from one operator to the Plain English Campaign to get an impartial view of their readability. Their feedback? There was too much unnecessary jargon, too much repetition and the text was generally cold and distant. Sentences were often double the length of the recommended 20 to 25 words.

A simple example, but when did you last ask someone ‘would you like assistance?’ I suspect you used the word help. Much less cold and impersonal.

A lot of passengers will read information on their phone rushing to the station or snatching a glance while doing something else. The point of the message has to be instantly clear. People don’t read things on phones and websites in the same way as they read a book, they skim. Meaning that they often read as little as 20 per cent of the page. Snappy, easy sentences and paragraphs are essential to making it as simple as possible for readers to quickly digest the information they need.

Text that isn’t immediately self-explanatory costs readers time if they have to read it twice to understand it.

A bit of Googling suggests that the average adult reading age in the UK is 11 years old. Yet the text in some disruption messages is comparable to broadsheet editorials. This isn’t about dumbing down, it’s about making it easy for passengers to ‘consume’ the information train operators need them to have.

In January the Office of Road and Rail released research that concluded that the rail industry lacked a clear strategy for delivering improvement to passenger information. The industry’s response will rightly focus on giving passengers access to timely and accurate information. There will also be work to make technical improvements to the systems and IT infrastructure used to deliver information. Importantly, though, the research also identified the need for simple customer-centric language.

The need for language to be simple should not be underestimated and the quicker train operators understand the importance of this the better.

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