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.



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.