I watched a programme about the London Underground last night. Two hundred and seventy four stations, five hundred trains and millions upon millions of passengers every week. It’s quite an operation, constrained as it is by ageing stock, crumbling infrastructure and a populace on the move at an ever greater speed. A surprisingly large amount of their efforts seemed to be around managing the crowds, opening and closing gates and stairways, adding loops to people’s walks through the station or cutting corners in some modern parody of that geography lesson I remembered about how rivers meander across valley floors and eventually sever to create oxbow lakes.
Preventing surges and bottlenecks is the name of the game to ensure free movement, all be it at a snails pace and with a crick in your neck (if you’re not tall and have ridden the underground at rush hour, cramped into the side of the carriage where the roof slopes down to fit the Victorian tunnels, then you may not recognise the cricked neck phenomenon, but trust me, it’s there).
And now, in the narrative, appeared a man with one of the most fascinating jobs on the network, someone who immediately grabbed my attention. He’s the man who deals with the signage, and he opened by talking about phase disclosure.
So there are pinch point, places where you have to make a decision when you ride the Tube. You walk down the stairs, or descend the escalator, and move through the ticket barriers, and there, you face a decision. Jubilee or Northern line? You glance up, faced by two large signs, left for Jubilee, right for Northern. Northern today, so branch right, down another escalator, then to decide, north or southbound? Again, a sign presents itself, this time with detail of individual stations.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is phase disclosure: the right information at the right time, so seamlessly that you don’t even notice that you’ve been duped. You don’t stop to think that someone, in this case an ernest young man in serious glasses, has carefully positioned all those signs to ensure that you glance but don’t stop to read. He’s carefully analysed exactly how large the text should be and about at what point you will have stopped fumbling for your ticket or juggled your coffee and shopping bags, and will be desperately casting your glance about to decide which way to turn.
Just enough information to make a decision, not enough information so you stop and think. He already knows where you’ll turn and he’s been there already to give you the right sign for your needs. Information in bite sized chunks. Sound familiar?
Signposting in learning is every bit as important as the content. Building the story at the right pace, presenting the right information at the right time. Avoiding bottlenecks and stoppages. Allowing enough of the genie out of the bottle at the right time to keep the story moving, but not all at once so you become overwhelmed.
Take a simple idea and give it a name. Phase disclosure: I’ll add that to my skillset.