Transport for London: Your user experience going down the Tube

You’ll hopefully forgive me for that little play on words in the title. I don’t mean to suggest that London Underground is all that bad. Far from it, in fact; I think the Tube is an amazing service, and though we Londoners often complain about its foibles, we also know that many of us depend on it. That dependency is a testament to the Tube’s utility and fundamental place in London life.

But I think we all know that things could be better. TFL clearly know this as well, as they work to bring about more frequent, reliable, and capacious trains.

All of those improvements are measurable, quantifiable things, and they’re very much worthwhile. But there’s more to the experience than that: there’s the emotional, qualitative experience to consider as well. Of course, these two things are linked – a quantifiably better service would doubtless be perceived as being superior, by subsequently happier customers. But that’s not the whole story.

On the Tube, opportunities for frustration are numerous, and the passengers demanding. A delay of just minutes, a lack of information, misinformation, just missing your train; all these things can (and frequently do) evoke scoffs and unhappy faces from passengers.

And evidently, some passengers take out their frustrations with the service in less-than-constructive ways. Aside from a desire to improve the user experience of the Tube for the sake of customer satisfaction, addressing or managing these frustrations may also result in fewer incidents of staff abuse.

So what could be done to improve how passengers feel? In this blog post, I’d like to focus on an area that, for the most part, could be addressed right away: communication.

The passenger hears many announcements during their journey, and the delivery of these announcements often reveals a staff that is as frustrated and tense as the passengers. Difficult though it may be – and I do very much feel for TFL’s staff, who have to deal with myriad problems and customer personalities – everyone would benefit from announcements made in clear, non-robotic, warm voices. This is a customer service issue, and in restaurants, hotels, and shops, the customer expects a professional-yet-friendly tone from the staff, the likes of which is often missing from TFL’s announcements. Here for example is an announcement that I recorded at Leicester Square.

 

 

The voice you hear is loud, aggressive, and impatient. It creates a tense atmosphere. An announcement like that can only have a negative effect on a passenger’s mood.

Advancing the negative feelings further, passengers on the train can on occasion hear both a driver announcement and a platform announcement simultaneously. This talking over each other makes it harder to hear the information being relayed, again adding to the tension and frustration, and leaving the passenger feeling confused and bombarded – hardly a peaceful sensation.

The easiest solution here would be for the driver to wait until the platform announcement has finished, though it may also be necessary to limit the duration of platform announcements so as not to keep the driver – and thus the train – waiting for too long.

However, there’s perhaps a technological solution to be employed here, so that platform announcements are piped into standing trains, and vice versa. This would make all announcements mutually exclusive, and thus easier to hear for both those on the train and those on the platform. And whilst it’s true that not all messages are relevant to both the passengers on the train and those on the platform, irrelevant information is a price worth paying to ensure that the announcements can be heard at all, and to create a calmer, more peaceful atmosphere.

That is, assuming the passengers are paying attention in the first place. Many passengers, myself included, have headphones in as they travel, meaning that announcements are often missed. Particularly the beginning of them, during which those of us with headphones must first hear the faint noise of something being said over whatever it is we’re listening to, and then remove our headphones, by which time the critical information may have passed.

I wonder also about those who are hard of hearing. Though I’ve not done any research on this (as always, please chime in via the comments if you have a perspective to share), is it possible that, due to the volume of ambient noise, passengers with hearing aids turn them down, because otherwise the cacophony is too much to bear? And so, similar to those wearing headphones, these passengers would also struggle to catch an announcement when it is made, because they aren’t aware that it’s being made.

I wonder then if it would be possible to give a visual indicator just prior to an announcement, to prompt these people into listening. A non-invasive yet noticeable way of doing this would be to change the lighting. The driver would hit a button, the lighting would change, then after a moment’s pause – allowing people to remove headphones and such – the driver would make their announcement. (This would in some circumstances work even for those with their eyes shut, as a change of lighting can be noticed through the eye lids. Though this effect would be less noticeable when the train is in daylight.)

It’s easy to focus on numbers and forget about the less tangible issues at play. Those issues can often seem less important, partly because they’re harder to measure and therefore easier to dismiss. But I would argue that if TFL cares about customer satisfaction enough to improve the easily quantifiable things, it should also consider how it communicates with passengers. Currently, it all too often encourages bad moods and dissatisfaction to proliferate. Good communication can take the edge off a bad situation, and poor communication can make a bad situation even worse. Similarly, you can make the trains bigger, faster, and more reliable, but undermine all that good work by creating a tense, frustrating atmosphere.

Quantifiable measures are important, but they are not the whole experience. How are your customers feeling?