18 July 2019

How badly delivered content costs both lives and money

Spot the warning! This photo was used as proof in a court case that resulted in a train company being fined £1m. The case was brought by the UK's Health and Safety Executive against Govia Thameslink, the operator of the Gatwick Express service, after a passenger died having stuck his head out of a train window and hitting it on a track side gantry. 

The case wasn't brought because there wasn't a warning, but because of the number and positioning of the warnings. The judge noted that whilst there was a warning sticker on the door, it was "jumbled" around other notices. "The signage around the window was confusing," he added. In short, this was a freak accident, but one that could have been avoided with better signage.

One look at the photo shows the patchwork of warnings and instructions over the door. There's a lot wrong with them, not least:

  • There are six in stickers in total, all different sizes and colours and positioned differently. You may even initially miss the two directly above the door.
  • The one on the right has a clear "no entry" icon and says not to use the door as an emergency exit. Call me old fashioned, but I'd say a door is a pretty good exit point in an emergency.
  • The sticker to the left of the "no entry" icon has three separate pieces of information and is poorly situated. A user's eye is drawn top to bottom and left to right. The positioning of all the labels does little to help the user see what's important.
  • The yellow one on the left is labeled "Emergency ventilation", which gives the impression that it's OK to open the window. Only the smaller text stipulates not to stick your head outside. Trouble is you may have to, to reach the door handle on the outside. Admittedly one of the other labels has instructions on opening the door, and does say to wait until the train is stationary, but that information is in the wrong place when reading the yellow label.
This is a classic case of content overload. It is easy to go for a quick fix when content needs to be changed or added. Change is part of life, and it costs money. The trouble is sometimes it pays to start again. Adding a sticking plaster, even one that is well written and easily accessible, is a temporary fix. Sometimes it pays to take a step back and analyse what the problem is and the best way to solve it.

In this case, it is clear that a total rewrite is required and a complete rethink about how the content is delivered. Unfortunately, it comes too late to save the life of the young man who died. A rewrite would also have saved Govia Thameslink £1m. If those two facts don't convince you of the need to clear content, I don't know what will.

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