Our thinking

Step Change

Phil Morley, Director of Employee Engagement at MerchantCantos, finds entertainment and intrigue in London Underground’s attempts to change customer habits.

'It’s like herding cats,’ commented one observer as the reality of London Underground’s latest attempts to change customer behaviour became apparent.

 The programme in question is underway in Holborn tube station. The goal is to get all emerging passengers to stand on both sides of the ‘up’ escalators to exit the station. Yet on all other escalators on the London Underground network, people are encouraged to walk on the left, stand on the right. This change to the usual routine is a disruptive challenge to an accepted and automatic behaviour – and it’s proving difficult.

As behavioural change programmes go, it is relatively straightforward to define and comprehend. But like many similar initiatives, the associated communication challenge requires a significant investment of resources and needs to address a range of issues. 

A wide range of channels is being used to deliver this particular message. At the base of the escalator an incredibly polite, yet repetitive, hologram implores users to follow the new standing rules. Just before the escalator there is a floor-based poster and on each step are some stickered footprints. Every few metres to the side there are also small digital screens carrying a set of key messages, and a PA system delivers a short recorded message. So within a metre of approaching the escalator, and for the next 30 seconds or so, it’s pretty much a captive audience being subjected to all of the above on a daily basis. Headphones and wandering thoughts aside, there is comprehensive coverage to reinforce a very simple call to action: stand on both sides.

And yet, taking a look across the crowds over the last few days confirms that our habits really are hard to break. While some may just follow instructions when in the herd/commute mode, it obviously doesn’t work for everyone.

Maybe it’s because there is little explanation as to why people are being asked to change the habits of a lifetime. There are a couple of clues as to the rationale, but somewhat bizarrely the first appears after you leave the escalator, after the experience. At the top of the escalator, in a single, very formal, easy-to-miss poster is a partial explanation that advises that there is a test underway to help reduce congestion. The second, and only rarely used input, is from someone in the station over the PA system.

 It turns out that a fuller explanation can be found in the media (for example, here). This is in fact a second test to address congestion, an earlier test provided proof of the counter-intuitive notion that standing still on both sides of the escalator speeded up exit times.

It turns out that the imploring messages have been developed by the behavioural science department at the London School of Economics – and that they are testing a range of messages from direct imperatives, to those that will ‘play on words about standing’. As a fan of wit in communication I am looking forward to a few ‘step change’ references.

 The first experiment involved extra staff in place with megaphones for three weeks. According to one report, though, it saw a return to existing behaviour under a week later. This latest and longer trial is to test if commuters can be influenced by just signage and information.

 Having read the media coverage I can appreciate the effort – and potential benefit – to both myself and my fellow commuters. Those communications are therefore playing a fundamentally different role for me. They are now behavioural cues to remind me, because they have context. The important foundation of awareness and understanding has been established. And that will help the nudge that is needed in attitude and behaviour, and help me make the shift from compliance to commitment. The problem is…how many other commuters have read the wider media surrounding the experiment? How many others understand the rationale?

 It will be interesting to see what happens over the next six months. I suspect that until the ‘why’ is better embedded and appropriately incorporated in the commuter experience, the dawn chorus of harassed harrumphs and tolerating tuts will persist.