Field notes on words

Writing about words

Catching the right tram the wrong way

Sydneysiders fetishise Melbourne trams because we ripped ours up a few decades ago to make room for more cars. So it’s a perverse thrill for me to catch a tram, as noisy and jittery as they may be.

When I was in Melbourne a few months ago, I caught the right tram in the wrong direction.


The second time it happened, I knew there was something else afoot. I mean, I am a geographically challenged person, but two times. I think I’d be more likely to catch the wrong tram entirely.

I looked at the directions in Google Maps, an app that has rarely failed me and has probably changed my life more than any other. This is what it showed:


This is what the sign at the correct tram stop showed:


In Google Maps, the copy is origin-first. The sign, however, is destination is first. As a user — a fallible, prone-to-skim-reading, geographically disoriented user — I do not care where my tram has come from.

I had, of course, glanced at the app, only noted the first chunk of text and assumed it was the destination. Why? Because the route could have started in Tasmania and it wouldn’t have affected me.

I would have then matched that chunk of text to the physical sign at the tram stop, which would have (rightly) shown the intended destination of the tram, ‘Victoria Harbour Docklands’.

And then I would have waited at the wrong tram stop.

It’s a strong example of why ‘front-loading’ text — putting the most important information first — is so important when you’re trying to guide or instruct a person with such limited real estate to write in.

Google Maps could fix this easily by making the text origin-first (parentheses help to show that the origin is subordinate to the destination):

Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 10.09.19 am.png

Or it could be even more crisp and concise by only mentioning the origin:

Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 10.07.50 am.png

A third option is to match the signs in the physical environment and lead with the origin, while noting the suburbs en route:

This last option affirms you’re at the right place by matching the signs at the stop, and it could be useful when comparing alternative routes with the same end-point.

It’s funny that getting used to really easy, simple interfaces has made me a lazier reader of UI copy. And perhaps everyone is reading the full line of text, or is already well oriented in Melbourne. Perhaps I’m the only idiot who assumes my apps are smarter than me.

In any case, I got much better at catching trams after learning to distrust my instinct to trust Google Maps.

Celina Siriyos