The Psychology of Waiting


In a recent paper by Donald Norman about the psychology of waiting lines Norman discusses the experience people have while waiting in line. How can designers make this experience better?


The paper made me think of this classic story about a building where tenants were complaining about long elevator waiting times.

In a multistoried office building in New York occupants began complaining about the poor elevator service provided in the building. Waiting times for elevators at peak hours, they said, were excessively long. Several of the tenants threatened to break their leases and move out of the building because of this…

Management authorized a study to determine what would be the best solution. The study revealed that because of the age of the building no engineering solution could be justified economically. The engineers said that management would just have to live with the problem permanently.

The desperate manager called a meeting of his staff, which included a young recently hired graduate in personnel psychology…The young man had not focused on elevator performance but on the fact that people complained about waiting only a few minutes. Why, he asked himself, were they complaining about waiting for only a very short time? He concluded that the complaints were a consequence of boredom. Therefore, he took the problem to be one of giving those waiting something to occupy their time pleasantly. He suggested installing mirrors in the elevator boarding areas so that those waiting could look at each other or themselves without appearing to do so. The manager took up his suggestion. The installation of mirrors was made quickly and at a relatively low cost. The complaints about waiting stopped.

Today, mirrors in elevator lobbies and even on elevators in tall buildings are commonplace.

Donald Norman gives eight design principles for waiting lines:

    1. Emotions Dominate
    2. Eliminate Confusion: Provide a Conceptual Model, Feedback and Explanation
    3. The Wait Must Be Appropriate
    4. Set Expectations, Then Meet or Exceed Them
    5. Keep People Occupied: Filled Time Passes More Quickly Than Unfilled Time
    6. Be Fair
    7. End Strong, Start Strong
    8. The memory of an event is more important than the experience itself.

The story about the elevator used rule number 5. Keep people occupied. Some other lessons can be learned from theme parks. Theme parks regularly make the line turn corners, so that at any point, the line looks only as long as the distance to the next corner. Deceitful? Yes, but still helpful. Disney theme parks provide entertainers to engage the people in line, ensuring they are enjoying themselves.
It helps if lines move quickly, so a long, fast-moving line can be preferred to a short, slow-moving one, even if the actual waiting times are the same in both cases.


5 Responses to “The Psychology of Waiting”

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