These two simple words can send an otherwise rational person into an uproar online. Everyone stands in line in the physical world. But the Internet era has created assumptions that we can access whatever we want on-demand, 24/7. Many are startled to find that queues have moved online.
Lines are a fair—if disliked—way to deal with high demand in the physical world. Given the technical challenges of peak website traffic, lines serve the same useful purpose online, and aren’t going away anytime soon.
“People claim to hate wasting time,” says Queue-it CCO and co-founder Camilla Ley Valentin. “Yet many are willing to wait for their favorite Black Friday item or the latest Apple gadget.”
What queue psychology shows is that the waiting experience makes all the difference. For businesses, it’s critical to make the experience a good one.
We’ve written before how, done well, online queues harness social proof to boost conversion rates. But at Queue-it, “we still hear the misconception that applying a queue page to your website is negative,” says Ley Valentin. “People often say, ‘My customers need to access my website at all times; it’s a risk to put them in a queue!’”
For businesses, the risk isn’t putting people in a queue. The risk is ignoring queue psychology and delivering a negative experience that loses customers and damages your brand.
What is it about waiting in line that tends to raise our blood pressure? What is it that differentiates a positive queuing experience from a poor one? The key is rooted in the psychology of queuing. And the answer might surprise you.
A primer on queue psychology
Danish engineer A.K. Erlang founded the field of queuing theory in the early 20th century while analyzing telephone waiting times. Early researchers focused on improving the efficiency of queues, serving as many people as possible within a fixed company budget. But they paid little attention to how people felt when standing in line.
Fast forward to 1950s New York City. The problem of waiting in line had materialized in the elevators of the city’s newly built skyscrapers. As Queue-it CEO and co-founder Niels Henrik Sodemann explains in his video “Breaking Down the Psychology of Queuing” building managers realized that the problem wasn’t the wait duration itself. Rather, it was the perceived waiting time.
The solution? Add floor indicators showing people the progress of the elevator and add floor-to-ceiling mirrors near the elevators to distract people while they waited.
Photo by j-No
Similar hacks have since been used everywhere from airport baggage claims to doctor’s waiting rooms to supermarket checkout aisles.
All this goes to show that “often the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself,” says MIT operations professor Richard Larson, also known as Dr. Queue.
The 6 revealing rules of queue psychology
From our experience, Harvard Business School professor David Maister has compiled the gold standard overview of the psychology of queuing. In his article “The Psychology of Waiting in Lines” Maister outlines 6 cornerstone principles that determine customer experiences when waiting in a queue. These are equally applicable to physical or online waits. They should factor into any queue management.
How many queue psychology principles are you optimizing for?
1. Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time
Even if customers are in love with the product they’re queuing for, not providing a distraction during the wait can make it seem torturous. Just like with the elevator mirrors, get creative with ways to engage your customers.
If callers are waiting to speak to your customer service, give them the chance to get called back when it’s their turn. If fans are waiting for an artist to perform, let them join in on a game of trivia using an app like Kahoot. If customers are waiting in an online queue, customize the queue page and embed videos or games.
Online queues actually have an advantage over physical queues as customers aren’t limited by the need to stand in line. If your virtual waiting room can notify visitors when it’s their turn in line, they can check email, tidy up the house, or do any number of things to occupy their time while waiting.
2. People want to get started
Think about when you enter a restaurant. Sometimes the wait until you’re first greeted by the waiter can seem worse than the wait for your table. The start of the transaction is the end of the wait, so make sure people feel like they’ve started.
If your business is a restaurant, let your customers preview the menu. If you’re running an online product launch, let customers in the online queue read more about the product so they feel like they’ve started the buying process. Even better, give them a sneak peek of upcoming products.
Adding a progress bar on the online queue page also highlights for customers that they’ve started. It shows a beginning and an end, and waiting becomes reconceptualized as progress.
3. Uncertain waits are longer than known, finite waits.
Communication is key because the transparency helps set expectations.
Provide information on how many other people are waiting in line. Give an estimated waiting time. If in doubt, it’s better to overestimate the wait than underestimate it. How an experience ends (known as the peak-end rule) greatly influences people’s assessment of the whole experience. So, being rewarded with an early exit from the queue will pleasantly surprise your customers and leave them feeling more positively overall.
4. Unexplained waits are longer than explained waits.
Humans look for explanations behind all things. The absence of explanation is frustrating. Airline pilots know this well and will always include the reason for a delay (whether it’s the airline’s fault or not) instead of merely stating there is a wait.
Such explanations are even more critical during an online queue, where there are fewer contextual cues available to your visitors. Saying your site is experiencing “technical difficulties” is a vague and unnerving description for visitors. Make sure to provide a clear explanation of why your customers are in a queue (e.g. “Hi Sneakerhead! So that everyone has a fair shot at getting their hands on a pair of new sneaks, we’ve reserved a place in line for you in our virtual waiting room.”)
If possible, keep real-time communication flowing to your waiting customers to keep them up-to-date and remind them why there is a wait.
5. Unfair waits are longer than fair waits
The perception of fairness has arguably the biggest impact on how we feel when we’re waiting in line. We’re constantly on guard to ensure no one cuts the line. Violations can be met with queue rage.
A first-in, first-out (FIFO) (or first-come, first-served) wait is the exemplar of fairness. Make sure your queue—whether online or physical—operates in this way.
If you’re operating an online queue, remember to address customers who arrive early. For example, we’ve designed our virtual waiting room to place early visitors in a pre-queue with a countdown to the official start of the queued event. When the sale or registration begins, we assign a randomized queue number to all early visitors and then operate the queue in a first-in, first-out fashion. This ensures early visitors don’t benefit from arriving early and gives everyone who does a fair shot at being first in line.
6. Anxiety makes waits feel longer
Put yourself in your customers’ shoes. They really want the concert ticket or pair of sneakers they’re waiting in line for. That in itself is already anxiety-provoking. Removing anything that could cause anxiety (e.g. warning visitors they only have a few minutes to complete their booking) is great. Preemptively addressing any anxieties, rational or not, is even better.
If your setup involves multiple queues, think again. A large portion of queue anxiety surrounds being unfairly overtaken by others, what Richard Larson calls “skips and slips”. One serpentine line removes any need for your customers to make (and constantly reassess) a decision about choosing the “right line”.
You can drastically improve your customers' waiting experience by understanding the psychology of queuing. Use the infographic below as a reminder of the psychology of online queuing.
Don’t fail your customers; invest in improving the customer experience with Maister’s 6 rules of queue psychology.
(This post has been updated since it was originally written in 2016.)