Improve Your Signs: Using the C-Train as a Guinea Pig

Calgary Transit has recently changed the look of their digital signs that adorn every LRT station platform. My understanding is that the responsibility for these signs has shifted over to the signals and switches department. Anecdotally, I can attest that the accuracy of the real-time information has improved. This is key for a good transit sign.

For me as a regular LRT user, I am assuming that the intended purpose of these signs are twofold: to provide customers with updated information of the arrival time of the next couple of trains, and to disseminate information on service disruptions and alerts. With this overall goal in mind, let’s have a look at how well the signs accomplish their goal, and where some potential improvements can be made. Disclaimer: I am not formally trained in graphic design. Most of my knowledge and understanding comes from developing academic presentations, and Googling things like “smart sign design tips” and reading the information, and from developing websites in my past.  A lot of good design is taking advantage of the brain’s built-in tendencies and applying common sense. Excellent design is hard, but good design is fairly easy.

I’m going to take the C-Train’s current sign layout and convert it to something “adjustable”, so that we can play with the layout and see if we can make improvements. This representation is using information exactly as it was presented to me as I was waiting for the train at 11:29pm on September 11, 2015. Here it is:

CTrain Signage 1

The top information is relatively static (with periodic updates), while the bottom text comes in the form of a scrolling “ticker”.

Let’s start with what the signs do right.

  • Good contrast – While this is more of the way these signs work, the yellow-on-black contrast that the signs produce is very good. They are easily readable in any lighting conditions, and the resolution is good enough that reading individual letters even at a relatively small point size is feasible.
  • The most important information is biggest – The information that passengers care about (when is my next train?) appears large and central. Passengers can use the upper right portion of the sign only and obtain all the information that is useful.

There are two general categories to consider when seeing how we can potentially improve the sign: layout considerations involve the location and design of where and how the information is presented on the screen, and information considerations involve what exactly needs to be on the screen. In both cases, there is a mantra: communicate the relevant information as simply and intuitively as possible. Let’s get started.

Improving The Layout

In many languages, including English, people read from left to right, and top to bottom. That means when you see a bunch of text, you immediately look to the top left to start organizing and deciphering all the symbols you see. In the current sign layout, there are two competing priorities for your eye: the top left information box where you would logically start, and the large, capitalized letters SADDLETOWNE and SOMERSET. This creates a tension between where you’re supposed to look. It’s small and fleeting, but it’s a stress that does not have to be here. Let’s flip the two top boxes and see what happens:

CTrain Signage 2

We’ve run into another related problem. Once you start reading, your mind wants to complete the entire line, and gets annoyed with the irrelevant information displayed at the end of the line. We can remove this natural tendency to try and read the whole line by applying another idea: Consistent numerical information should be aligned or displayed in a table. In our case, the “next train” information has two distinct columns of data: the destination, and the time to arrival. They should be left and right justified in the space provided:

CTrain Signage 3

Our brain isn’t trying to read the entire screen as a line. The alignment of columns produces a distinct space in which we can “look up” information instead of reading it as a book. It’s placed in the top left, so our brain is already looking at the screen. The large, capitalized text reassures us that we are indeed looking in the right place. The ‘info box’ now sits in a secondary position, where it can be studied for additional information if needed. In fact, if I am a frequent user of this system, I may only glance at the top right corner of the top left box, since I know that is where I will find the time to the next train, always. The same cannot be said about the original layout.

Lastly, let’s look at the ‘ticker’ on the bottom of the screen. This article does a good job of describing the pitfalls of using moving text. People read it slower, they remember less, and they have more trouble understanding it in general. In fact, the only benefit that is described is to keep people who are waiting for an extended period of time distracted. For a sign who’s goal is to communicate relevant information simply and clearly, scrolling text bad, static text good. Instead of scrolling, why not just display important information in small portions and transition every 10 seconds or so?

CTrain Signage 4


As a final clean-up, avoid using non-standard symbols. In this sign, the “:” symbol for the time makes sense, because that is how time is usually formatted, but the “.” symbol between the number of minutes and the unit of time “min” is non-standard. I expect to see a space there – why bother adding more to the screen when you don’t have to? Let’s make that change:

CTrain Signage 5

At this point, the changes are relatively non-intrusive. I would guess that a large amount of people would not even notice the change if Calgary Transit were to start broadcasting information with this layout. Nonetheless, a small improvement seen by a number of users can really increase the overall experience of transit.

As a segue to content, I’ll leave you with an exercise. During service disruptions such as passenger emergencies or mechanical issues, Calgary Transit broadcasts updates on the disruption to all (affected) stations on the route. Using what we’ve talked about, I’m sure you can tell me why this layout, even with the adjustments from before, is all kinds of wrong:

CTrain Signage 6

Improving the Content

Once the layout has been simplified and cleaned up, it’s easy to see that the what is actually a secondary objective (within the realm of common sense). Knowing what people will actually use the sign for is important, and in this case the time to next train is really the only thing of merit. A lot of digital signs  falls victim to the “supplemental information” problem, and include weather forecasts and temperature readouts when they’re not actually part of the objective of the sign.

What content is relevant is also more subjective than where to place it. Some people might like having the temperature displayed for them. Personally, for a sign displaying immediate and relevant information required for completing my trip, the current outside temperature is not much of a concern. Extreme weather warnings or watches are much more relevant, as well as any alerts or service changes. Also, formatting dates and times in an intuitive way is important, including remembering that people in Calgary generally say “September 11” not “11th of September”.

I’m going to stop there to avoid venturing into the realm of nitpick and ramble. The main point I am trying to make is this: The layout of your presented information can have a large effect on a user’s experienceThis statement is broad, but it is certainly applicable to transit. There are countless books and guides that can be used to improve the way even simple digital signs like these ones look. It doesn’t take much thought, but it does take some. As a final summary, here is a recap of the simple design ideas I used. Feel free to critique, rebut, or add your own in the comments!

  • Important information should be large
  • People (around here) read from left to right, and top to bottom
  • Repeated numerical information should be presented in a justified table
  • Avoid using non-standard symbols
  • Scrolling text bad, static text good
  • Simple and clear is better than clever and cluttered

CTrain Signange 7

1 comment on “Improve Your Signs: Using the C-Train as a Guinea Pig”

  1. Hermina Joldersma Reply

    Makes sense to me – prefer your layout, for the reasons you indicate. Have you passed this on to Calgary Transit? it’s of course possible that the sign mechanics have systemic limitations, although it’s hard to imagine that it’s something that can’t be changed.

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