Ulla de Stricker, de Stricker Associates

In my professional blog at www.destricker.com, I have often commented on the cost of confusion caused by lack of clarity. Having experienced a farcical unclear-signage episode in an airport, I wrote (in http://bit.ly/1paLyl0):

Could it be that information imprecision, vagueness, or ambiguity might cause the organizational equivalent of missed connections and wasted time repeatedly redirecting dazed information seekers? Airports may not engage mystery travelers to examine the clarity of their signage and the instructions employees give, but I believe most enterprises could benefit from such an investigation: Just where and how long is the path through the enterprise or intranet maze when someone needs to find something or someone? How useful is the immediately available information? How often must an inquirer return to an informant for clarification? How much cumulative time is needed to arrive at the correct department, person, or data inventory for proper assistance?

Since penning those questions, I have come across innumerable new examples:

  • In one of my chapters in Knowledge Management Practice in Organizations (http://bit.ly/1fkqvs7), I told the story of my confusion when faced with the choice “single fare / multiple fares” at a commuter rail ticket kiosk. As it turned out, the latter option refers to several passengers traveling together, not to several tickets for later use. I speculate to this day on the customer service call centre cost of handling requests for refunds from travelers like me.
  • It took me several visits to a subway station in Toronto before I figured out that the arrow pointing upwards on the BUSES sign does not mean “straight ahead” but rather “turn around, the buses are behind you”.
  • At an upscale hotel, I had to ask the concierge for help when the artistic triangular arrows next to signage text were so small I could not tell which way they pointed unless I stood two feet from the sign.
  • At a major train station in Canada, commuters aiming for track 25 follow the sign saying “Tracks 24 and 25”. When they reach the platform at the top of the stairs, they are on the platform for track 24—and there is no evidence where track 25 is. Thirty feet ahead, an opening in the wall separating the two platforms gives access to track 25—but how are out-of-town passengers to know they must keep walking? They are justifiably perplexed and panicky until the regulars point them to the opening in the wall.

Such tales may appear insignificant in the scheme of things; after all, what’s a bit of minor inconvenience? Let’s think about it. If a certain assumed percentage of commuters are new to a station on any given day, they will need assistance from a station attendant in order to find the buses. Most hotel guests are by definition “new” and therefore unfamiliar with the location of elevators and meeting rooms. Even fifteen seconds per excuse-me-could-you-help incident adds up over the months and years. That’s time the employees could have used more productively for service enhancement, user loyalty building, and similar worthwhile pursuits.

Other instances of poorly worded or badly executed signage may simply serve to amuse—or to send messages about the organization’s attention to quality assurance:

  • A side door at Centre Pompidou in Paris bore a hand written sign saying “This door is today exceptionally closed.” I’m aware how word order differs from one language to another and therefore understand how the French speaking writer came up with that wording; yet I’m still smiling at the mental image of the concepts of “sort of closed”, “quite closed”, “firmly closed”, and “exceptionally closed”.
  • The metal sign affixed above the special seats in the bus declares “These seats are reserved for people with disabilities and seniors”. The intent is clear, but “people … with seniors”? The solution is painfully obvious: “These seats are reserved for seniors and people with disabilities.”
  • When the door to a lounge announces “Member’s Only”, we must wonder “of what item or option does the solitary member possess but a single instance?” (We further must speculate whether the luxurious club was unable to afford a proof reader’s services.)
  • No doubt the dental professional is highly capable, but the expensive awning makes me wince every time I see it: “Preventative Dentistry”. (No, no, no. No matter how much it rhymes with “tentative”, there is no such word. “Preventive” is what should have been on the awning.)
  • The letter from the bank proudly informs me “As a loyal customer, we are upgrading your account with additional privileges.” Hm. Where does the bank shop so faithfully?
  • When the sign over the aisle with pens, pads, envelopes, and glue says “STATIONARY”, I mutter to myself how very true it is that those stationery items are staying put!
  • Nowadays, hotel rooms feature single-cup coffee brewing equipment. Therefore, I am deprived of the entertainment offered by the old fashioned glass coffee pots whose sides warned “Do not use if cracked”. (Each and every time, I decided I was sufficiently sane to deploy the pot.)

Examples like these may raise concern only among those of us who are afflicted with highly sensitive grammar radars (all other readers pick up the intended meaning without any fuss). It could be argued the tourist attraction, the bus company, the club, the dentist, the bank, and the drug store are financially just as well off as they would have been had they avoided the clumsy or erroneous wording. I say it could be argued that the entities in question would have preferred, if given the choice by an alert employee, to revise the wording prior to committing it to permanence.

There is a simple rule for any signage and message: TEST IT. Show it to a reasonable number of potential customers to observe the reaction. Are the test users scratching their heads, trying to tease out what was meant? Do they laugh out loud at the inadvertent blooper? Or do they merely look quizzical as if considering the quality of the company’s services and products overall?

It continues to amaze me how many organizations leave the composing of official communications and signage to amateurs … when so many information savvy editors stand ready to assist.