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This is the 2nd part of a series on time perception in human-computer interaction – a topic I have spent the past year researching. It is intended for this series to continue and to explore the perception of time in software and physical environments as well as persuasive psychologies.

I have recently started a series of posts designed to explore user wait times and how to manage the perception of time for the end-user. My first post on this topic discussed the difference between occupied time and time spent waiting. I recently came across a story concerning the management of user wait time, I thought it was particularly pertinent to my recent research. It also ties in quite well with the research of Steven Seow, who has written a book on the subject and Donald Norman, who wrote a rather lengthy article on the psychology of waiting in line. I have taken a lot of this research and tied it together as a means of understanding human psychology and how to manage the simple act of waiting.

Waiting can be excruciating for us humans. And, we spend a good majority of our lives in this very act. But, there are ways to alleviate “the torture” and create a better experience for our users. In general, I have found there are 7 primary rules to managing user wait time. Put another way, there are 7 concepts you should never violate if your users have to wait in a line, on a process or on an interface. I’ve outlined each of these rules below and provided examples of situations where these concepts are applicable. Following this article are further resources should you decide to delve deeper into this research.

Rule 1: Never let your users watch the soup come to a boil.

At one point, it seems the Huston airport had a problem with complaints related to customers’ wait time for their baggage to arrive. They did what most large organizations do – threw money at the problem and hired more baggage handlers. But, that didn’t stop the complaints. When they analyzed the situation, they discovered that customers spent only a minute, on average, walking from the gate to the baggage area and another 7 minutes waiting. Thus, the majority of their time was spent waiting.

“So the airport decided on a new approach: instead of reducing wait times, it moved the arrival gates away from the main terminal and routed bags to the outermost carousel. Passengers now had to walk six times longer to get their bags. Complaints dropped to near zero.”

The Huston airport found a way to turn customers’ waiting time into occupied time. Waiting for some process or event changes our perception of time. Think of the last time you were really hungry and popped a dinner in the microwave or put a pot of soup on the oven to bring up to heat. If you stand there and watch the microwave clock or the pot of soup, it will seem to take forever to bring the soup to a boil or for the meal to finish cooking. Go hang up your jacket after a hard day at work, kick off your shoes and open the mail. Before you know it, you’ll hear the microwave beep or smell the soup. This anomaly is what Steven Seow refers to as “watching the kettle boil” and it’s a situation you want to avoid with your users at all costs. If you are anything like me, you have burnt something on the stove because you preoccupied yourself while it was heating up. Time flies when you aren’t watching the soup come up to the right temp.

Key point: Take a lesson from the retail industry. Look for places where your users wait and attempt to fill that time with something meaningful. There is a reason why grocery stores place magazines near the checkout lanes, waiting rooms have televisions and movie theaters have arcades.

 Rule 2: Justify the wait

Is the wait fair or unfair? Do you appear to care when users are forced to wait for long periods of time? I recently wrote an article concerning the checkout lane and rules they violate. One of the violations large chain stores make is in having 30 registers and only manning 3 at any given time. Add to this a few employees in the front who seem to be doing nothing while you are waiting in line and you have a situation where the wait seems unfair. Change the scenario to a small store where there are 3 registers and you are standing in the same sized line. You know the cashiers are working hard and the store is dong everything that can be done to get you through the line. This is a much different scenario than the former. In the former, it seems as though they should man more registers and the employees milling about in the front of the store could certainly step up to speed things along.

Justifying the wait does not mean you simply apologize, however. The recorded message on the phone stating your message is very important to Anthem or AT&T customer service doesn’t calm most people down. We naturally assume they can afford to hire more employees. But when it appears everything that can be done is being done, we see the situation differently.

There is another level to this though and that is underscoring the value of the wait. Steven Seow writes of this in his book and refers to Priceline where the system used to search and let you know it was searching millions of sites to get you the best deal possible. That underscores the value and justifies the wait. If there is value to the wait, people will have an increased tolerance threshold. And underscoring the value of a wait, justifies it – such as when a system will search millions of sites within a 5- 10 second span. But, think of the long lines for new Apple releases or concert tickets. In such instances, the wait becomes part of the experience.

Key point: Ensure the wait is justified if something has gone wrong by assuring the user everything that can be done is being done. And, underscore the value of the wait when there is one.

Rule 3: Provide transparency throughout the process

Don’t leave your users in the dark. Ensure they know how long the wait will be by using numbering systems or systems to let them know where they are in the process. There is nothing more frustrating than being stuck in a line – think traffic – and not knowing how long you will wait or how far the line stretches. This is why interfaces use progress bars and countdown systems. Uncertainty is the enemy of a waiting user. Traffic systems in large cities often estimate how long it will take to get to the downtown area or in the case of Chicago, The Loop.

Key point: Be clear about where the user is in the process and how long the process will take.

Rule 4: Set goals you can meet or beat

Restaurants are famous for slightly overestimating the wait time. They do this so they are sure they will meet their estimate or possibly even beat it. If they meet the estimate, you have nothing to complain about since they told you upfront how long it would take. If they beat the estimate, you are pleasantly surprised. Steven Seow refers to this as “underpromising and overdelivering” and Donald Norman writes of it as well in his analysis of the psychology of waiting in lines. The absolute worst thing one can do is to promise “the doctor will see you in 10 minutes” and 20 minutes later you are still waiting to be brought to the back.

Incidentally, some restaurants are really good at recognizing Rule 1 and bringing appetizers around to keep people preoccupied. This, of course, is both a gesture to let you know they recognize the wait is long and is also a means of generating more sales.

Key point: Be realistic with time estimates. Underpromise and overdeliver to lower expectations and then exceed them.

Rule 5: Carefully design the beginning and the end of the process

Research has shown people can go through a terrible customer experience and if the end of the process is pleasant, they won’t remember the long wait or unpleasant experience. An example of this is when you are in a very long line waiting and then the line suddenly speeds up. These methods can be applied to progress bars to make downloads and processes seem to move more quickly. (I’ll explore design interactions in a future post where I apply these rules to an interface.)

A similar body of research shows first impressions are, indeed, lasting and customers’ entire experience can be tainted by their first impression of a product or store. This is why some companies put so much effort into how their products are boxed. It is your first impression of the camera, iPad or other such product. A bad first impression can flavor the rest of the product experience for you. Steven Seow refers to this as playing catchup ball when a bad start has occurred. In other words, it’s hard to make up for a bad first impression.

Key point: Evaluate what your user sees or experiences when they encounter your product, service or interface for the first time and how the experience ends for them. Memories of events are heavily shaped by the beginning and ending of the event.

Rule 6: Avoid siloing wait times

The medical industry is famous for siloing wait times. You are told to wait in the lobby. Then they call you back and put you in a little room where you wait some more. Finally a nurse comes in to get some vital signs. Then you wait some more and finally the doctor comes in. After seeing the doctor, you might wait to get a lab done or handle financial matters. All of this compartmentalized waiting actually makes the entire process seem longer than what it is. When studies were conducted on this, it was found that those who waited in one place for the same amount of time reported shorter wait times than those who waited the same amount of time in different places. Don’t break up the process for the user. This may have something to do with flow, which is an upcoming post on this topic.

Think of software. Isn’t it nice to hit the load button and walk off – fire and forget? It’s worse when you have to be there each time to wait through the process and click the next button. This silos the waiting time and makes the entire process less endurable.

Key point: Keep waiting times together when possible as it will make the process seem shorter. Structure waits so they are consolidated. Broken wait times make processes seem longer than they truly are.

Rule 7: Design for emotion

Our emotions are precarious and they act as a filter through which our experiences pass. Think colors, aesthetics, the smile on a doctor’s face or the ambiance of a restaurant when you have dinner with your loved one.

An example: We have two primary software platforms we work on at my office right now. One of them seems to always be favored. It’s primarily white. The other one has a Black/Red/Gray color scheme and I have always hypothesized this is a problem because the latter platform possibly does not evoke positive emotions.

Donald Norman sums it up like this:

“When in a positive mood, minor setbacks are considered minor, not a major problem. But when anxious or irritable, the same minor setback can become a major event.”

So we want people to be happy. This means creating an environment that is lively with positive colors. This can also be applied to an interface. Where I have seen this principle best used was at Columbus Regional Hospital – Columbus, Indiana – where the floors were carpeted, plants were flourishing everywhere with comfortable furniture in lobbies. It felt more like a home than a hospital. This was a place where people came when they were sick. So there could be nothing more important than ensuring the environment was a positive one.

Key point: Carefully analyze the design of your product, process or software to ensure it invokes positive emotions. Look at colors, lighting (if it is a physical place), the arrangement and most of all combine this rule with Rule 6 to concentrate on the beginning and ending.

Following and carefully considering these 7 principles is key to managing user wait time. Future posts will consider these principles in relation to software interfaces. So, how can we apply the lessons learned by the retail industry to software development? It’s simpler than you think…unless you’re a programmer.

Further Resources:

The Psychology of Waiting Lines

Designing and Engineering Time: The Psychology of Time Perception in Software

Why Waiting Is Torture