Please Hold On…

When I was a boy, my mom and I used to laugh about the seeming glee bus drivers took in causing their captive audience (i.e., passengers) to lose their footing. Extra points would be awarded if an old lady with her shopping was thrown, eggs smashed and oranges rolling all the way to the back of the bus. Fortunately, today we live in kinder times, with greater sensitivity to the customer, and service-oriented prompts to help assure a safe and secure ride. Or do we?

While riding my morning commute on the bus, I noticed several people getting thrown off balance as the bus lurched forward, despite the friendly-voiced announcement to “Please Hold On”.

The voice prompts on public transportation are of particular interest to me as they are both a user interface for communication of information (appealing to my UX work) as well as voice performance (appealing to my fledgling voice acting work). I’ve often noted and listened to the intonation of the voices, the choice of female versus male voice (the voicing in SF’s Muni buses use both, which is either intentional to help draw attention, or unintentional due to budget or lack of availability of the main voice actor; I know not which).

However, on this day I had my UX hat on, and couldn’t help notice a man who had just boarded the bus unceremoniously thrown off balance, arms-a-swinging, and just manage to grab a pole and save a shred of self-respect, as the voice prompt said in her ever-friendly tone: “Please hold on!” Several minutes later, after another stop, the same thing happened to a small group of women.

Curious as to how the system worked, I started paying closer attention to the voice prompts to see if I could figure out how they were being triggered. As best I could determine, the “Please Hold On” prompt is triggered when the bus starts moving, after having come to a stop and opening and closing the doors. It doesn’t trigger every time the bus starts, only after a stop. So presumably it’s intended to be a friendly cue to the new folks who have just boarded the bus.

The problem lies in that on both occasions that I observed the riders losing their balance, the prompt comes too late. The lurch forward of the bus — common in the electric trolley buses we have in San Francisco as well as on uphills (and perhaps varying by driver) — is what causes the physical shock, and even though the announcement is fast on the heels of it, it’s still on the heels of it.

It would be interesting to see if more people would grab those poles faster if the prompt went as the doors closed. While it’s true that there then might be a lapse between the announcement and the movement of the bus, clearly the current announcement comes a moment too late. The physical lurch itself is the strongest cue to the passenger to reach out and hang on; the voice coming afterwards is almost an insult (it reminded me of the bit in Modern Times when Charlie Chaplin keeps getting his mouth wiped after being tormented by the Billows Feeding Machine). If voice prompts are to help, they have to come before the coach starts moving.