Pet Peeves That Matter: Sloppy Publication Language

Jun 8th, 2010

(I apologize for the 3-week blogging hiatus…I have been moving from Vancouver BC back to Seattle.)

Public agencies generally fail to market themselves adequately.  The unique (and frequently perverse) social incentives of government agencies often privilege breadth of communication at the expense of depth and structural clarity.  Official correspondence between agency and customer can thus be muddled or unnecessarily opaque. Government websites are notoriously – almost comically – difficult to navigate, the user too frequently being assaulted with dozens of uncategorized hyperlinks in no sensible hierarchical order.

Recently while settling into my new city, I quickly noticed two examples of poorly chosen transit language.  First I picked up Sound Transit’s new Ride the Wave timetable book.  Knowing that they had recently implemented a new fare structure, I flipped to the page about fares and found the following paragraph:

The fare you pay to ride an ST Express bus changed on June 1, 2010. Your fare is based on zones. So, for example, trips within Pierce or Snohomish counties are one zone. However, if you cross a county line, an adult trip could cost $3.

There are two problems with that last sentence:
(1. The use of conditionals, such as “if” and “could cost”, is inherently confusing and completely out of place. People hate fare uncertainty.  I read that and I think, “So I can sometimes cross a county line and NOT pay $3?  How?”
(2. Doesn’t it make crossing a county-line sound wrong somehow? As though the $3 fare were punitive?

Then while waiting for a LINK train in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, I absentmindedly read the information board on the platform.  There I saw more conditionals to muddy the water, this time about Metro’s Peak/Off-Peak fare structure:

Generally, peak fares apply Monday through Friday, 6-9am and 3-6pm.

If you’re going to say “generally”, I expect the exceptions to be clearly spelled out just below. But no such luck.  Why not just refer the rider to the shaded (peak) trips on the timetable?

Maybe it’s a small thing, but unnecessary complexity is my biggest transit peeve.  Transit agencies should take time to review their official publications from the perspective of the end-user, taking great care to ensure publications that improve clarity, system transparency, intuitiveness, and the rider experience.  Making careful language choices is a good place to start.

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