The 10 principles of waiting detail the factors that make waits feel longer. The time we wait feels longer when it is: unoccupied, before or after a process, uncertain in duration, unexplained, unfair, physically uncomfortable, or when we are alone, anxious, new to service or the product is cheap. By addressing these factors it’s possible to improve a customer or employee experience.

Summary by The World of Work Project

The 10 Principles of Waiting

Most people consider waiting to be a negative thing. It detracts from customer and employee experiences. Where people need to wait for any protracted period of time they may become frustrated, annoyed or angry. They feel that they are wasting their own precious time and that others are not valuing their time.

When designing customer or employee experiences, it’s beneficial to minimize any waiting time. Where it’s not possible to reduce waiting time, it’s important to design your experiences so the perception of waiting is reduced.

Watched pots never boils is captured in The 10 Principles of Waiting
A watched pot never boils.

Understanding the 10 principles of waiting can can help experience designers provide better waiting experiences for their users or customers. We look at each of the 10 principles below, and consider the lessons that each one provides.

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1 – Unoccupied Time Feels Longer than Occupied Time

Experience designers should ensure that appropriate tasks or entertainment are provided for individuals who must wait.

Magazines in medical and dental waiting rooms are a great example of this. Similarly, televisions are used in many locations where people need to wait.

2 – Pre and Post-process Waits Feel Longer than In-process Waits

Because waiting feels less onerous once someone is already involved in a process, experience designers should initiate processes as soon as possible. It’s better to have a longer overall process with waiting within the process, than a very quick process with waiting either side of it.

A simple example of this could be requesting a customer to complete a form as soon as they enter a location. This activity brings them “in-process”, reducing the sense of waiting that they feel for the remainder of their experience. Again, medical practices often do this.

3 – Anxiety Makes Waits Seem Longer

Anxiety causes people to feel that time moves more slowly and makes waiting seem longer.

To overcome this, experience designers should create calming waiting spaces. This can be achieved through furnishing, color palette choice and music. Using relaxing furniture, calming colors and soothing music can reduce the sense of waiting.

Calm waiting rooms can be explained by The 10 Principles of Waiting
A calm waiting room reduces both anxiety and the sense of waiting.

4 – Uncertain Waits are Longer than Known, Finite Waits

Waiting seems to take longer when we don’t know how long we are going to be waiting for. To overcome this, experience designers should seek to inform customers or employees of how long they can expect to be waiting.

There are many examples of this in practice in many different industries. One that most people are familiar with is the use of digital “downloading” bars that show how much longer it will take or a computer to finish downloading something.

By providing users with this information, digital experience designers reduce the sense of waiting that customers experience.

5 – Unexplained Waits are Longer than Explained Waits

The fifth of The 10 Principles of Waiting is that our waits seem to last longer when we don’t know why we are waiting. Given this, experience designers try to ensure that their customers are kept informed of not only the duration of their expects waits, but also the reasons for these waits.

For example, if an airplane is delayed in taking off, the captain will inform the passengers of both the expected duration of the delay and the reason for the delay.

6 – Unfair Waits are Longer than Equitable Waits

When people who are waiting feel that others are receiving faster service than they are, they are more acutely aware of the duration of their own waits. To overcome this, experience designers should ensure that their waiting processes are equitable.

A structured queue, as recommended by The 10 Principles of Waiting
A structured queuing system creates a better experience than a jostling one.

A common means of achieving this is through the use of structured, physical queuing systems. This can be in the form of clear lines with fair service orders, or through the use of things like ticking numbers that ensure customers are served in the order in which they have requested service.

7 – People Will Wait Longer for More Valuable Services

Customers will wait longer for their yacht to be delivered than their car.

Waiting is a considered a cost, and is in some way considered in relation to the cost of the underlying good. People are willing to wait longer for a more valuable good, in part because the proportional cost of their wait to the good remains low.

If you ask someone to wait for a cheaper or low value good, they will become more annoyed than if they were to wait the same amount of time for a higher value good. Time is, after all, money.

Service designers are aware of this and strive to increase the speed of provision in cheaper product locations, where possible. A good example of this is the speed with which fast food is provided. Where people will happily wait for a fancy meal, they need fast service for a cheaper, lower value meal.

8 – Waiting Alone Feels Longer than Waiting in Groups

The eighth of the 10 Principles of Waiting is that when people are waiting on their own they experience a longer sense of waiting than when they feel that are part of a group or cohort. To overcome this, experience designers seek to create groups when possible and appropriate.

An example of this could be the use of “boarding groups” by airlines.

9 – Physically Uncomfortable Waiting Feels Longer

Physical discomfort makes people more acutely aware of the fact that they are waiting, and the converse is also true. The more comfortable we are, the less aware we are that we are waiting.

Experience designers are aware of this and seek to make waiting locations comfortable, at least for some goods.

A comfortable place to wait reduces the sense of waiting.

A good example of this is the creation of airport lounges which make waiting for airplanes seem less onerous.

10 – Waits Seem Longer to New or Occasional Users

Whenever we do something for the first time it tends to feel longer than when we do it again. For example, walking back from somewhere always feels much quicker than walking there in the first place.

To help overcome this phenomenon, experience designers should seek to provide as much information to their customers or employees as possible. Doing so helps reduce their sense of waiting.

Learning More

The 10 Principles of Waiting is another example of the fact that our perceptions of the world shape our realities. In many instances we are not truly rational. We all have cognitive biases that affect our perceptions, thinking and decision making. An example of a cognitive bias that might relate to waiting is the Peak End Rule.

The World of Work Project View

Awareness of The 10 Principles of Waiting and what can be done to overcome them is very helpful in designing customer experiences. While waiting might seem like a minor thing to many people, it’s actually hugely important and a big differentiator in product preference and customer choice.

A great example of this is Google who prioritize the minimization of their search times (their stark white background means less loading time required) as well as providing changing daily search art, which further reduces the sense of waiting.

Google’s minimal search page reduces loading time, improving customer experience.

From an employee journey perspective, waiting is also important. Internal processes that require waiting are detrimental to employee experience. It’s also worth thinking about these principles when designing learning and development programs.

Of course, there is a need for pragmatism in relation to all of this. While reducing the sense of waiting can be free (for example getting people “in-process” quickly), it can also be very expensive (for example providing comfortable waiting areas). Businesses much balance the cost of their experience design with the benefits that it brings to them.

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This post is based on original work by David Maister. You can read more in his article: “The Psychology of Waiting Lines”.

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