Join William Lidwell for an in-depth discussion in this video Five tenets of queuing, part of Universal Principles of Design.
- [Jill] Hi, I'm Jill Butler, and this is Universal Principles of Design. In this movie, the Five Tenets of Queuing, or why when it comes to waiting in line, perception is reality. It's been estimated that the average American spends two plus years of their life waiting in line. And for those of us around the world living in population dense areas, this estimate jumps to as much as five years. But as dire as this sounds, the pain or pleasure of such waits, is a matter of design.
Take the case of luggage wait times at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, the city where I live. If you've never been to Bush, it's a huge sprawling airport. And so not surprisingly, it takes a long time to get luggage off the planes and to the luggage carousels. And for years, this meant long wait times and a lot of customer complaints. It was estimated that after landing, 88% of a passenger's time at the airport was spent waiting at a luggage carousel.
A very frustrating experience. So, the airport got to work. They streamlined their processes, they hired more baggage handlers, and they worked really hard to get the wait times down to an average of just eight minutes, a time well within the norms of other airports. But surprisingly, the complaints kept coming in. So after some additional research, they decided to try a different approach. Rather than trying to reduce actual wait times, they would change their strategy and try to reduce the perception of wait times.
They moved the arrival gates farther away from the main terminal, and they routed bags to the outermost carousels. Passengers now had to walk six times longer to get to their luggage carousel. But, their wait time once they got there, dropped to less than one minute. Complaints dropped to almost zero. The total wait time had not changed, but the perceived wait time was dramatically reduced. So this airport example illustrates how the psychology of waiting and standing in line can inform better experience and service design.
And fortunately for us, a service management theorist by the name of David Maister, developed Five Tenets of Queuing that can help us do just that. Maister's Five Tenets formed the foundation of modern queue design, and they apply to everything from customer service wait times, to grocery store checkouts, to theme park lines. His Five Tenets of Queuing are, number one, occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time. For example, it's been found that one of the easiest ways to reduce complaints about elevator delays is installing mirrors near the elevator doors.
When people are occupied primping in front of the mirror and ogling other passengers, they get distracted from delays and they complain less. Number two, people want to get started. For example, it's standard practice for doctors to have exam rooms that are essentially secondary waiting rooms. You wait in the waiting room, your name is called, and then, you wait in the exam room. This practice evolved because these way stations reduce patient frustration by creating the illusion of progress.
Number three, anxiety makes waits seem longer. For example, a long line into a movie theater will create anxiety for those in the back, fearing that they'll get a low quality seat. This makes a long line and a long wait seem longer. One solution, assigned seating. With the anxiety alleviated, the wait times become more tolerable. Number four, uncertain waits are longer than known, finite waits.
For example, it's become customary for service offices to post signs indicating when they're away. When signs are general like, we'll be right back, or be with you shortly, customers get frustrated far more quickly than when the signs are specific, like will return in 10 minutes. And when such expectations are exceeded, delays are often perceived as a net positive, which is why masters of queue design often pad their wait-time estimates. Number five, unfair waits are longer than equitable waits.
For example, at cashier checkouts, people would rather wait in a long single-line configuration than in a shorter, multi-line configuration, where the lines move at different rates. Nothing is more frustrating than picking the slow line. Line psychology is first come, first served, and any deviation from this basic rule results in anxiety, frustration, and sometimes violence. Especially when cutting or skipping lines occurs.
Following these Five Tenets of Queuing will take you far in your line design. But no course on queuing would be complete without acknowledging the all-time queue design master, Walt Disney theme parks. And the queue technique for which they are most famous is called a hidden switchback or themed queue. Hidden switchbacks wrap queues behind walls and around scenes, concealing their true length, and also, entertaining visitors as they wait. They have essentially turned queues into interactive preshows.
Queues are no longer waiting lines, but extensions of the ride experience. They are master studies in experience design. So whether you use the Five Tenets of Queuing to improve the customer waiting experience, to reduce perceived wait times and customer complaints, or to borrow a trick from Disney's playbook and make long lines a themed experience, remember, when it comes to waiting in lines, perception is reality.
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