There is a wonderful scene at the beginning of the Blues Brothers film where Jake Blues is being released from the ‘Joliet Correctional Center’. He is escorted to a collection point at which he is reunited with his personal belongings. He ignores the sign on the wall informing inmates ‘when waiting for clothes stand on the line. Do not move beyond the line at anytime’. Blues disregards this advice crossing the line as he approaches the counter, only to be pulled back by his two burly minders. When required to sign for the return of his possessions, with both feet now firmly rooted behind the line and someway from the counter, like a tree being felled he falls forward, makes a human bridge with his stiffened body to place his ‘mark’ on the receipt.
I can’t watch this film without being reminded of the inability of people to follow instructions or observe the protocols given as part of the services they are receiving, and for this reason I’m turning my attention for this edition of ‘Thinking Aloud’ to the behaviour of ‘customers’ rather than the service providers. Unfortunately, unlike Jake Blues, their minders are not in attendance to help them observe the rules!
I’m intrigued, and constantly amazed by, the mistaken belief that the public will ‘toe the line’, and abide by the rules or conventions, or more practically to observe lines applied to floors, roads, and walkways in the forlorn hope that they will be observed. [For the avoidance of any doubt, ‘line’ is being used here to denote a visible mark or symbol often painted upon a surface, as opposed to the American interpretation of a queue of people]. The airport baggage collection carousel being a particular favourite, as this never fails to throw up a succession of people who just can’t bring themselves to do something as simple as stand ‘behind’ a line. The line is designed to keep passengers a little distance from the carousel (for their safety and the comfort of other passengers), yet there are always those who will push in front of you to take up ‘pole position’ right at the front of the waiting crowds, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake as they clumsily manoeuvre their trolley through the crowds into their ringside position, obliterating everyone else’s view of the luggage as it approaches, and then being too close to the moving belt to be able to manhandle their luggage from the carousel without cracking the shins of those standing about them. Ruining the process for everyone else but hey, they are OK!
This preoccupation with lines continues. ‘Keep back from the platform edge. Passing trains cause air turbulence. Stand behind yellow line’ decorate platforms at many stations, yet passengers continue to stand on the very edge of the platform even when high speed trains pass through the station without stopping, severely compromising their safety, and no doubt testing the nerves of the poor train drivers.
The unattended taxi rank between London’s St. Pancras station (or St. Pancreas as my grandmother called it), and Kings Cross, is a joy to behold. At the head of the queue the rank comprises three ‘bays’ from which you can access a taxi, allowing three simultaneous ‘pick-ups’ thereby increasing the speed of turnaround and efficiency (in theory)! Despite the bays being clearly marked and numbered, for most it appears beyond their capability to recognise the process and adhere to it. And oh the anxiety if you are fourth in the queue and you are now faced with the dilemma of leaving the security of being at the head of the main body of that queue to take up position at bay #1 in readiness for the next trio of taxis to move into position. You have to hope that those behind you follow your example and move into the shortly vacant bays 2 and 3, rather than squeeze between the barrier and kerb to take the fourth and fifth taxis in line, thereby completely confusing everyone around and ‘stealing’ the taxi that was meant for you! So much for Disney Corporation building ‘lines’ (i.e. queues) that pass by the place where you join a ride so that you can observe the process before you engage in it (Disney obviously never tackled the problem of taxi ranks)!
Motoring related examples are, of course, too numerous to list here but these days does anyone adhere to ‘lane’ discipline as set out in the Highway Code? In particular, joining from the left has become a game of chicken; car parking a contest of spatial awareness to see how many parking bays can be occupied by a single vehicle; box junctions a tessellation puzzle (i.e. how many vehicles can you get into a limited space without overlapping); and distance chevrons on the carriageway of the M1 intended to encourage separation from the vehicle in front, has become an open opportunity for other road users to precariously thread themselves between you and the vehicle in front.
So why do we think that the sort of people who would avoid washing their hands after going to the toilet; dispose of their chewing gum in the urinals; or forget to turn off the taps after use (three regularly occurring notices in men’s toilets), will alter their behaviour because of a notice giving them instructions to do so? And have you ever counted the number of items shoppers have in their baskets when they are in the ‘5 items or less’ queue.
I’m always acutely aware when travelling by air of the cacophony of sound as the seatbelt sign is turned off after landing and everyone rushes to release their seatbelt. However, I’m even more amazed by those who have perfected the ‘silent’ seat belt release, whereby they appear to be compliant but are in fact ready to depart the aircraft prior to landing. My wife was reminded of the importance of these ‘rules’ as her hand was crushed between a fellow passenger’s bag and the armrest of her seat as he attempted to retrieve his overweight hand luggage from the overhead locker before the aircraft had come to a complete halt. He then lost his footing as the aircraft lurched towards the gate dropping the bag on her hand in the process. She was not amused although was badly bruised!
What hope then for honesty boxes (also known as an honour box)? Although, I did come across some interesting research recently (Bateson, Nettle, & Roberts 2006) which appears to show that using the image of a pair of human eyes in the signs and notices associated with a honesty box in a university coffee room dramatically increased (by up to three times) the money collected for drinks taken, thereby providing evidence for the importance of cues of being watched, and the effects on cooperative behaviour.
So how do these examples inform those of us that design processes where customers are involved? What is it we assume the customer is capable of when we design processes, or do we have to design for the lowest common denominator? Our assumption that common sense will prevail, is perhaps to abandon that common sense. Despite all the good design principles the everyday operational issues often take control, with the associated consequences.
 Bateson. M., Nettle. D., and Roberts. G., (2006). Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting. Biol. Lett. (2006) 2, 412 – 414. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2006.0509.