Designing Waits That Work

Designers at restaurants, theme parks and elsewhere have investigated how to make waiting in line more pleasant. What they have learned has profound implications for all managers.

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Image courtesy of Flickr user Fernando de Sousa

At some point, every manager has had to tell someone to wait. We all have to wait sometimes. It’s a simple matter of timing and resources. Whenever two systems interact, one is invariably ready before the other. In the factory, this disparity can lead to stockpiles of goods or bottlenecks. When people are involved, it can give rise to inefficiency and anger. This is no good for customers or employees. But the psychological impact of waits can be managed, and studies in design show us how to do it.

My introduction to design started with my studies of fundamental principles of interaction to enhance the use of technology.1 Now, as I teach and consult on the applications of these principles to business, I apply them to many aspects of customer experience.

In places where waits are required, these principles can not only make waiting more pleasant but can also make it feel like not waiting at all. Sometimes inducing a wait can improve the customer experience. When waits are inevitable, the research shows, the goal should be to optimize the experience for both customers and employees, thereby enhancing customer satisfaction and reducing employee stress and turnover. What this research has revealed can help managers in many situations, even those not involving lines.

Manage Understanding

While writing this article I was an unwilling participant in a situation that illustrated many of its principles. I boarded an airplane that was scheduled to take me from San Francisco to Chicago, but the departure was delayed while airline technicians worked in the back. Frequent announcements told us that the rear toilets were not working, but we would leave as soon as they were fixed. Then the crew told us that we might leave without the toilets operating. Every 20 minutes I received a text message on my cell phone updating the departure time. After an hour of continual maintenance effort and announcements, the captain explained that he had decided that we should not fly with only one operating toilet. Instead, we would disembark and leave later on another airplane. Despite the uncertainty, the passengers were calm and understanding. My seatmate told me that it was reassuring that the captain himself had made the final announcement and explained his reasoning.

The leading question

What happens when companies can no longer count on their core business?

  • Manage understanding by delivering fair practices and open communication.
  • Manage perceived fairness by reframing what waiting is.
  • Manage memories, because the memories of an event last much longer than the event itself.

It was not so reassuring in the terminal. The gate agents, bombarded with questions, had no information. One announced a gate change using the correct flight number but the incorrect destination. I quietly corrected her, and she explained that she had been called in hastily and wasn’t clear what the issue was. Passengers fretted over missed appointments and airline connections, but the gate agents were even more stressed than the passengers. At one point an agent tried to make an announcement, but her confused statements puzzled the passengers so much that they interrupted her. They asked sensible, reasonable questions in reasonable voices, but the agent, flustered, said that if they didn’t stop she would call the police. After the next question, she picked up the telephone but evidently had second thoughts and simply left.

Why the difference in behavior? Lack of information and appropriate feedback, and no understanding of the underlying causes. The employees felt more stress than the customers: Employees are people, governed by the same principles. However, their situation is worse than that of their customers, for they must endure the complaints, even though they neither had any part in causing the situation nor have the information to help solve it. People get frustrated when they lack control and understanding. Frustration is a strong negative emotion. Informed, intelligent feedback is as important to your staff as it is to your customers.

A little bit of information can go a long way. In interaction design, knowledge of the underlying operations and activities is called a conceptual model. When people are not presented with a clear conceptual model, they will make up their own, and these made-up models will not show your company or service in a positive light. Honesty and complete information are the keys to avoiding frustration.

Contrast the two experiences. On the plane, we all knew the causes of the delay, learned about the attempts to fix the problem and understood the reasoning behind the decision to change aircraft. But in the terminal, there was no understanding of the process and no understanding of why the wait was so long or of what would happen to people with tight connections or important appointments.


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When people feel subjected to arbitrary unintelligible actions and lack of service, they feel anxious, frustrated and, finally, angry. Do you want your employees or customers angry at one another? Managing potential negative emotions pays off. At many amusement theme parks, staff members dressed as cartoon characters engage the people in line. This reduces unfilled time, transforming a wait into entertainment. In some cases, people waiting are told the back story for the experience they are about to undergo or are told something of the history and operations of the company. Visitors perceive this as directly relevant to the event, so they do not think of it as waiting. This philosophy can extend to many companies. Suppose, while waiting for baggage after a flight has arrived, passengers could view television monitors that displayed the progress of the baggage from the airplane cargo hold to the waiting carts and transport to the terminal and final placement on the belts. The backstage operations of many companies are of intense interest to customers. Why not use them to your advantage and engage people during their wait? Coffeehouses do this by letting customers watch the baristas. Sandwich makers do this by letting customers watch and direct the person making their sandwich. This principle even works without a physical presence. Domino’s Pizza Inc.’s Web site lets people trace the progress of their order, including the names of the cook and the delivery person, along with the expected time of arrival. The conceptual model is clear and direct, and the feedback transforms what could be an irritating wait into a personalized adventure.

Manage Perceived Fairness

The long lines at theme parks are a continual source of irritation for visitors. The Walt Disney Co. theme parks offer a “Fastpass” system for customers (or guests) that reserves a one-hour window at a specified time, letting the guests bypass the line during that period. Any guest can use this service, but a person can hold only one pass at a time (although numerous Web sites offer advice on how to beat the system). The Fastpass could be seen as unfair, because some guests are allowed to bypass the normal waiting line. But people who are waiting in the longer, regular line do not feel cheated, because they know that they too could have chosen a Fastpass for that ride. Many are holding a Fastpass to a different attraction and are in this line while waiting for the assigned time on their Fastpass. The critical feature that makes this fair is that everyone is entitled to use it.

Culture and Queues

Behavior and expectations are determined by a large number of sociocultural factors. Different cultures have different expectations of the waiting experience. One major difference is whether there should be a line at all. Polite, orderly queues are the rule in some cultures. In others, the noisiest or most forceful win. In some places, it is permissible to let others into the line just in front of you without consulting the people behind, even though it is the ones behind who suffer. In other places, this is socially frowned upon.

What is considered fair varies with the culture. In much of Asia, instead of forming orderly lines, people will crowd around counters, each person demanding the attention of the service givers. Although many Westerners are appalled, the system works well. A Chinese friend explained that with a typical, orderly (Western) line, people wait for a long time with nothing happening. In the apparent disorder of the Eastern crowd clustered around the service agents, people can get attention almost immediately, a tiny amount of the transaction gets accomplished. In the end, both systems may take equally long, but in the Asian method there is a continual feeling of progress.

Cultural behavior can be changed, although it can take a very long time to do so. McDonald’s Corp. changed queuing behavior in Hong Kong:

The social atmosphere in colonial Hong Kong of the 1960s was anything but genteel. Cashing a check, boarding a bus, or buying a train ticket required brute force. When McDonald’s opened in 1975, customers crowded around the cash registers, shouting orders and waving money over the heads of people in front of them. McDonald’s responded by introducing queue monitors — young women who channeled customers into orderly lines. Queuing subsequently became a hallmark of Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan, middle-class culture. Older residents credit McDonald’s for introducing the queue, a critical element in this social transition.i

Culture can be changed, but don’t count on it. Even if it is changeable, it takes years, perhaps decades. Of all things changeable, culture is the hardest.

Other theme parks let people purchase passes, but the wrong kind of passes can cause resentment. One person whose family had visited Disney and another park on the same trip explained to me that the Disney system seemed fair and equitable, whereas at the other, “The rich get to go first, and that isn’t fair.” To prevent customers from feeling this way, the company needs either to make the reasoning for preferential treatment explicit or, better yet, avoid the perception of preferential treatment. A few years ago I was given a behind-the-scenes tour of a Disney park by a senior Disney executive, but when we took the rides, we waited in line like everyone else. This, I was told, is a firm Disney policy. It maintains fairness: Even the most senior executives undergo the same experiences as everyday customers. Designers all know the importance of having deep empathy with their target audience, developed through observations as well as repeating the same experiences. In this case, one principle fulfills two goals: enhancing empathetic design and eliminating a potential cause of perceived unfairness.

One way to be fair is to manage expectations. As people see what is happening and believe it to be reasonable, their experience improves. Advance reservations minimize the trauma of waiting, but they must be perceived as fair and equitable to those without reservations. People have to believe that they too could have enjoyed the benefit of a reservation had they planned ahead. We know what reservations are and have clear expectations regarding how they work. Assigning customers numbers at arrival and then calling them in sequence, especially if the current active number is displayed, feels fair and equitable.

Perceptions are more important than reality. This is why having one line feed multiple servers is invariably perceived as being more fair than multiple lines, each with a single attendant. Although one line feeding n servers is n times as long as the multiple-line solution, it also moves n times faster: Fast-moving lines are far preferred by customers, and the speed can more than compensate for the longer line. Moreover, when there are multiple lines, the other lines are invariably perceived as moving faster, possibly because we note when another line moves faster than ours but fail to remember that our line has equally often moved faster than theirs.

Consider the checkout lane of a cafeteria. Both cashier and customer spend a good deal of time waiting for the other. Not only is this inefficient, but it irritates both customers and staff. The people in line watch the long delays, especially when nothing appears to be going on. “Why is that person only now searching for their money?” one exasperated person complained to me. How to solve this? Buffers.

In computer systems, it is common to use two buffers (storage areas) to speed operations. Processing alternates between the two buffers, so that one can be filled or emptied while the other is in use. The same procedure can be applied to any situation where people are served in batches. While one group is enjoying the experience, get the next group ready by bringing them into a special area where they can prepare for the activity.

Buffering can be seen in two-sided cash registers at restaurants: Customers to the left, customers to the right, cashier in the middle. The clerk waits on the left-side customer and, when finished, turns to the right. This alternation of sides gives each customer time to get ready for service and then, later, time to pack up and leave without slowing up the process. The psychological benefits are in the visibility of the method. Customers have a clear understanding of how the system works, and the usual frustration felt while waiting behind a person fumbling through their things is no longer present.

Buffers are at work when a customer makes a request at one location and then must move to another to get it fulfilled. The move from one window to another is a buffer, and designers know that filled activity is not perceived as part of a wait: The activity keeps the customer occupied and disguises the delay time. The time it takes to traverse the two locations is perceived as a necessary component in the sequence. In a drive-through restaurant, customers drive to an ordering window and then to the takeout window. If the design is right, the time of the drive matches the processing time. From the customer perspective, service is immediate.

Because buffers provide separate areas for different components of a service, they both aid the psychological impression and lead to greater efficiency. Moreover, sometimes customers need time to think and make decisions, so buffers that allow time can be beneficial. In a fast-food restaurant, customers need time to peruse the menu and make decisions, so some initial wait prior to reaching the restaurant staff makes sense. If the initial queue is too short, the customer may have to prolong the wait while deciding. This is true in both high- and low-end restaurants: customers understand that customizing an order takes time and expect it to take longer. They understand the rules.

Manage Memories

A century of research on human memory indicates that, all other factors being equal, the best remembered parts of an experience are the beginning and ending. The middle is least well remembered. (Unique, significant events are remembered, regardless of their position.) Studies show that progress bars are most effective when they go slowly at first (underestimating actual progress) but speed up at the end: The memory of the end dominates. Businesses must see to it that a customer’s experience starts and ends with a strong positive note. If possible, bury any unavoidable delays or less pleasurable components in the middle of the experience.

Human memory is not an accurate, faithful image of the past. It is an active reconstruction subject to many possible distortions. As a result, anything that reminds one of the positive aspects of the experience, such as mementos and other reminders, can modify the memory. Photographs, for example, remind us of the positive moments. With each viewing of the pictures, positive memories are enhanced without reawakening negative ones.2

After an event, all one has are memories of it. Because most waits are en route to a desired outcome, it is the memory of the outcome that dominates, not the intermediate components. If the overall outcome is pleasurable enough, any unpleasantness suffered along the way is minimized. Terence Mitchell and Leigh Thompson call this “rosy retrospection.” Mitchell and colleagues studied participants in a 12-day tour of Europe, students going home for Thanksgiving vacation and a three-week bicycle tour across California. In all of these cases, the results were similar. Before an event, people looked forward with positive anticipation. Afterward, they remembered fondly. During? Well, reality seldom lives up to expectations, so plenty of things go wrong. As memory takes over, however, the unpleasantness fades and the good parts remain, perhaps to intensify, and even get amplified beyond reality.3

People sometimes fondly remember events that never happened — and strenuously insist that they did happen, despite the evidence. In one experiment, people recalled seeing Bugs Bunny at Walt Disney World despite the fact that the wily rabbit is not a Disney character (he’s from Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc.) and could not have been there. The study concludes that even knowing a memory is not real does not make it any less meaningful or enjoyable.4 The memory of an event is more important than the actual experience.

The memory of the whole experience is more important than the experiences of the separate parts. Richard Chase and Sriram Dasu point out effective strategies for situations with mixed positive and negative components, including finishing strong, segmenting the pleasure while combining the pain, getting bad experiences out of the way early and building commitment.5 The results of these and numerous other studies of people’s memories of events reinforce the basic design principles: Manage the ending, provide mementos to take home, start strong and end strong and bury unavoidable unpleasant aspects in the middle.

When Waiting Is Handled Properly

While writing this article, my driver’s license expired, and the California Department of Motor Vehicles told me to report to one of its offices to pay a fee, take a new written examination, be photographed and provide a thumbprint. Usually a trip to the DMV is an exercise in frustration: not this time. The local DMV office was crowded with people waiting, some in lines, some in seats. There were 18 windows, each prominently numbered 1 through 18. A queue of people lined up in front of each window. One was labeled “Start Here.”

When Waits Are Good

Waits can be useful. Traffic lights introduce a deliberate wait for one set of vehicles, the better to permit another set of vehicles or people to gain access. The wait keeps us safe.

Waits can provide rests from other activities or time for preparation. In a restaurant, customers need time to make their decisions, which is one reason why service people are called “waiters.” However, once customers are ready to order, they do not want to wait. Similarly, after placing the order, it is appropriate that diners must wait. Diners in an expensive restaurant would be annoyed if the main course arrived too quickly. Speed would destroy the conceptual model of fine food that each order is prepared especially for the customer. But even here, waits that are perceived as being unreasonably long create annoyance.

Waiting can lead to enhanced pleasure. When we refrain from opening gifts before the allotted time, the enforced waiting helps to increase the emotional impact. We sometimes welcome waiting, for it allows us to savor the moment, or to read, finish a conversation or complete a desired activity. Sometimes waiting at the start of an activity is beneficial, giving us time to prepare. Deliberately adding a delay before the delivery of some services can enhance the experience, but only if the experience is designed properly so that the delay is appropriately tantalizing. Waiting is a necessary part of life, often negative and disliked, but occasionally welcomed and enjoyed.

I went to the end of the long line at the “Start Here” window. It moved rapidly. Soon a clerk helped me and explained what would happen. I paid my money, gave up my driver’s license and in return received some papers and a numerical tag: G273. I was told to wait until my number was displayed. Numerous television screens displayed the progress: Different letters represented different queues, clearly segregated by the type of service being requested. People taking driving tests had to wait longer than people simply changing their addresses. My wait was somewhere in between. That seemed fair. As long as the G queue was moving, I didn’t care about the others, and the G queue only had four numbers ahead of me. As the queues progressed, the screens changed from displaying the current active list to a large display of the active number and the window to which one should report. Soon enough, the display showed G273, Window 18. There already was a queue when I arrived, but it was short. I had my picture taken, left my thumbprint behind and was handed the examination questions. I was told to go to the testing area to fill out my answers, and then to report to Window 17. I answered the questions, went to the queue at Window 17, had my test graded and got an interim renewal. Just one more wait to go, but this one was at my home, waiting for the official license to arrive in the mail.

The California DMV has implemented many of the principles of good service. It uses a fast-moving, single queue to do the initial triage. It uses multiple queues, segregated by type of service being requested, fair assignment of numbers, continual feedback about one’s place in line and feedback about the nature of the processes. The only unhappy people I observed that day were those who had failed their tests. People knew they were in line and although they would have preferred not to be, they understood why. Moreover, the perceptions were of fairness, of hardworking clerks accommodating people’s needs.

Even though the need for people to wait is often unavoidable, the psychological perceptions can be managed. If the DMV can do it, any business can. All it takes is the application of appropriate design principles and attention to the impact upon both customers and employees.


On Donald Norman’s
Web site, you can read
the original version of this essay, “The Psychology of Waiting Lines,” to be featured in his upcoming book, Sociable Design.

Perceptions are more important than reality, so manage those perceptions with care. Make the reasons for the wait clear, and give feedback about the status. Provide a good conceptual model. Make sure everyone knows what is happening and why.

Give customers activities to fill the waiting time. They can be entertained, given a back story or explanation of the event or otherwise occupied. If there are interesting diversions along the way, the delays no longer seem like waits. If given appropriate activities to do or observe, customers think of these as the start of service, even though buffers or separate waiting areas are simply different form of lines.

Customer expectations, emotions and memories can be managed through the application of the appropriate design principles. Moreover, these principles don’t only apply to how you treat your customers: They apply to employees just as much. Waits can be handled well: it’s all a matter of design.



1. D.A. Norman, “The Design of Everyday Things” (New York: Basic Books, 2002); and D.A. Norman, “Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things” (New York: Basic Books, 2004).

2. R.I. Sutton, “Feelings About a Disneyland Visit: Photography and the Reconstruction of Bygone Emotions,” Journal of Management Inquiry 1, no. 4 (December 1992): 278-287.

3. T.R. Mitchell, L. Thompson, E. Peterson and R. Cronk, “Temporal Adjustments in the Evaluation of Events: The ‘Rosy View,’” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 33, no. 4 (July 1997): 421-448; T. Mitchell and L. Thompson, “A Theory of Temporal Adjustments of the Evaluation of Events: Rosy Prospection & Rosy Retrospection,” in “Advances in Managerial Cognition and Organizational Information-Processing,” Vol. 5, eds. C. Stubbart, J. Porac and J. Meindl (Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 1994), 85-114.

4. K.A. Braun-LaTour, M.S. LaTour, J.E. Pickrell and E.F. Loftus, “How and When Advertising Can Influence Memory for Consumer Experience,” Journal of Advertising 33, no. 4 (December 2004): 7-25.

5. R.B. Chase and S. Dasu, “Want to Perfect Your Company’s Service? Use Behavioral Science,” Harvard Business Review 79, no. 6 (June 2001): 78-84.

i. J.L. Watson, “Cultural Globalization,” Encyclopædia Britannica (2008).

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Comments (8)
Actually I'm surprised at the number of places that still have multiple waiting lines to servers. I believe this continues because although queuing theory clearly proves one line is more efficient, it's not obvious to the general public.
It can be quite discouraging to see one long line that snakes around forever! Maybe some clever design is needed to change the perception...
Alice Newton
Mirrors in lifts is a good example of this... people are busy checking themselves out in the mirror and they don't focus on the wait between floors.
Maybe you could take your studies to the uk, interesting to compare the difference in attitudes from each side of the pond
You are right Donald, Even though the need for people to wait is often unavoidable, the psychological perceptions can be managed. If the DMV can do it, any business can. All it takes is the application of appropriate design principles and attention to the impact upon both customers and employees.

Executive Offices in Orange County
You are right Donald, Human memory is not an accurate, faithful image of the past. It is an active reconstruction subject to many possible distortions. As a result, anything that reminds one of the positive aspects of the experience. 
Executive Offices in Orange County
Interesting article. Wonder how one could use this to design a better system for airport security checks. Although, most airports have different lines for frequent fliers and regular customers, depending on the flow one could end up waiting for a longer time on the 'frequent flyer' preferred line.
There's another reason why a single line for multiple servers is less stressful...the variability of the waiting time drops significantly.  

The reduction in stress comes not only from the perception of faster movement, but from an increased sense of fairness and from a greater predictability in when you will be served.
The story of the CA DMV was quite interesting. That is the exact opposite of what happens at the MI Sec. Of State office. I went in to renew my registration and had to wait in the first line , where the lady asked me for soem general information viz. purpose of visit, etc and then handed me a token. However, the token was a generic one. The same system was in place for everyone, no matter what they had come in for. As a result, I had to wait more than an hour to get my 2 minute paperwork done. A long tiem ago, they actually had a separate line for registrations, with just one person serving that line. That seemed to go a lot faster than the new system (the wait was 15-20 minutes) where there are multiple lines, but the overall wait is an hour or longer.