Queuing… a national pastime of British people if you were to believe some stereotypes. But no matter what way you look at it, queuing is one of those things that is perhaps inevitable at some point.
In the physical world, there are all sorts of tactics to reduce the misery of a person stuck in a queue.
Think about airports. Have you noticed that your walk from the aeroplane to the baggage claim seems as though you are taking part in a marathon? It’s not bad floor layouts to blame for this, or an architect with a propensity to subversively get frequent flyers fitter, it is actually designed to be this way.
Because when you’re walking you’re not waiting for anything. So instead of a 5-minute jaunt from the plane and a 25-minute eternal wait staring at a dark hole to see if your bag pops out, what you actually experience is a 20-minute walk (that you subconsciously don’t classify as waiting) and a 5-minute wait for your luggage (provided they’ve not lost it).
Immediately, the user’s perception of their wait time is reduced and is something along the lines of “Wow, that didn’t take long”, instead of resorting to counting floor tiles to pass the time away (I freely admit I have done this whilst stuck in a baggage claim hall with no Wi-Fi or mobile signal… I think I got to the 3,000’s before I lost count).
Optimising the Online Queuing System
In the digital world, we can also see examples of websites that utilise queuing systems for various reasons. But recently, a personal experience of an online queue really got me thinking “it has to be better than this”. And as an Optimiser, it piqued my interest even more so.
To set the scene, it was the rarest of occasions—a child-free afternoon and a world of possibilities for my husband and me to go out and do something. We decide to go to the cinema. We were almost ecstatic about the idea of leaving the house with no more fuss than picking up car keys and change for popcorn, and heading to the wilderness of the big screen to get lost in the adventures of Ant-Man & The Wasp or whatever else might be showing during the precious time we had available.
You can imagine, then, the sheer disappointment of arriving on the Vue Cinemas website to be presented with this:
A queue, for which there were more than 2,000 other people waiting in front of me. Not only that, I’m informed I have less than 5 minutes to complete my booking when I finally have the opportunity to do so.
And, it gets worse. Not only am I in a queue for what I assume is to book tickets, in fact, I am in a queue to access the entire Vue website—showtimes at my local cinemas, offers, big-screen events—all of this kind of information is sitting behind a wall of 2,000 other users waiting to do something.
Can you imagine this in the REAL WORLD—for example rocking up to your local supermarket to get your weekly shopping and seeing a swathe of 2,000 other people in front of you? Then imagine being told you only have 5 minutes to shop when you get in there—it would be like an episode of SuperMarket Sweep.
Let me take you through the emotions and thoughts I felt at this point:
Why am I in a queue? What did I do to end up here? Am I actually going to be able to book anything I’d want to see? My whole afternoon has now been ruined.
If I do wait in the queue then I have 5 minutes to decide on the film I want to watch and then navigate around a mobile version of their booking system. I’ve timed myself since and even with my A-Game on PRO level, it took me 2.5 minutes to make it through the booking funnel. That doesn’t account for the amount of additional time it would take for me to decide on a film, nor does it account for the faff time I usually have to endure, like finding my credit card to enter the details, most likely making an error on a form somewhere and rectifying it, or the usual discussion of where to sit when choosing seats.
What had been a possible opportunity to go out and have some fun, had now turned into what felt like me being dictated to by a company to which I have no special allegiance. What makes Vue so special that they can make me wait for their services so they can take my money?
What fathomable reason would a company like this have, to find themselves in a situation where their website cannot cope with the volume of traffic it’s receiving, or not have thought about handling these E.L.E’s (if you’ve watched Deep Impact, you’ll get the reference) in a more optimised way so as to not discourage people going elsewhere.
Had I been sitting in our Biometrics lab during this browsing experience, I can pretty much guarantee the i-Motions sensors would have been off the scale.
And the result?
I left the website never to return, even though I had a place in the queue. And it wasn’t just me, there was a whole raft of social media backlash from customers who felt exactly the same, so much so that it made the BBC news website and also The Register.
So How Can Online Queuing Be Done Differently?
As mentioned at the start of this post, there are a number of techniques to minimise queue disgruntlement. Bricks and mortar retail and other industries such as leisure and entertainment (think amusement parks) have been doing it for years and they’ve got pretty savvy and keeping lines of people happy. David Maister suggests there are 6 things to think about:
Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time.
Ever heard the saying “A watched pot never boils”? This is that. If a customer is in a queue, then provide an activity to fill the time which is related to the end goal and offers some sort of benefit.
People want to get started.
Conveying a sense that the service required has started. Pre-process waits are perceived as longer than in-process waits.
Anxiety makes waits seem longer.
Establish what your customers might be worrying about (rationally or irrationally) and find a way to remove the worry.
Uncertain waits are longer than known, finite waits.
If you inform a customer of a wait time, you better make sure it’s accurate and honest. If an appointment time is passed, a customer will get increasingly annoyed (especially if they turned up early).
Unexplained waits are longer than explained waits.
Provide an explanation for why the wait exists. A lack of explanation will add to a customer’s uncertainty about the length of the wait. If your customer is waiting with no reason, they will feel powerless, which usually turns to irritation.
Natural and justifiable explanations soothe a customer more than those that are unjustifiable. A good example of this (and one of my biggest bugbears) happens every year at Christmas time when I have to join the snake-like queue at our local post office to send parcels off far and wide. They have 2 counters, and 2 people sit at them, but typically only 1 person will be serving customers and the other is usually fiddling with something else.
As a queuee, my immediate response is “Look at the size of this queue, why isn’t that other person serving customers—what ARE they doing?!” I then usually hit boiling point along with everyone else. Why? Because NO ONE knows what that person is doing beyond the fact they are sitting there and not serving customers to help reduce the queue.
What I and the others don’t know is that the person not serving customers is actually processing all the other parcels so that the person who is serving can do it faster. But as this efficiency measure hasn’t been explained to me it SEEMS like I’ll be queuing twice as long as I need to because one person isn’t doing anything that has any noticeably effect on my situation.
Unfair waits are longer than equitable waits.
Sasser, Olsen, and Wycoff (1979) observed that “the feeling that somebody has successfully ‘cut in front’ of you causes even the most patient customer to become furious. Great care to be equitable is vital”, in that you need to be seen as treating all customers fairly.
The more valuable the service, the longer the customer will wait.
In general, a customer’s tolerance for waiting depends upon the perceived value of that for which they will wait. The principle is that waiting for something of little value can be intolerable—if you have ever endured the rugby scrum at the end of a flight when everyone wants off the plane at the same time, you’ll get a sense of what this is.
Solo waits feel longer than group waits.
There can be some form of comfort in group-waiting rather than waiting alone. If an organisation can promote a sense of group-waiting rather than isolating an individual, it will tend to increase the tolerance of the waiting line.
How Vue Could Have Optimised the Online Queuing Experience
It’s all very well giving lip service to what could have been done better and in what way… but what sort of practical and simple changes could Vue have made to enhance the queuing experience using some of the techniques above (and a few others)? Let’s take a look:
1. Explained Waits
It doesn’t take much to add a personal note to a message delivering bad news—by simply having a welcome message to the user. Rather than the statement of a problem, you can put your audience more at ease.
Think of it like walking into a restaurant—would you expect the serving staff to simply say “You’re in a queue” and walk off? No, you’d receive a welcome of some sorts, and then an explanation of what was happening, and usually a distraction (such as the menu) to keep you occupied.
2. Certain & Equitable Waits
Can you spot the big change here? We have raised the visual hierarchy of the wait time so that it sits ABOVE the fold. On the original page, on smaller devices such as an iPhone 8, the wait time was below the fold and the user (if they could be bothered) would have to scroll to see how long it was going to reach the front of the queue.
By providing this information upfront and in a clear way, we are setting an expectation for the user and allowing them to assess the time and effort they want to invest.
Subtle changes in the microcopy also assist here. Including words that mitigate the wait time such as “less than” sets precedence to the user that things are moving along.
We have also reversed the messaging to indicate how many people the user is IN FRONT of rather than BEHIND and provided an indirect indication of how fast the line is moving. It puts the user in control of assessing for themselves their current situation and the value of staying within it.
3. Reduce Anxiety
By providing clear instructions to the user about what happens next, we reduce the anxiety of not knowing what to do. We have also removed the 5-minute warning. Why? Because it introduces anxiety from the outset and will put customers off hanging around in the first instance. Getting users to stay in the queue is the key, not setting them up to fail at the second hurdle.
4. Get Started
By providing the user with access to SOME information, we allow them to at least feel as if they are making progress. The problem with the Vue solution was that it cut off ALL information for ALL users—everyone was treated the same. Whether you wanted to book a ticket, or simply browse the site or find out ancillary information, everyone was greeted with the same impenetrable wall blocking ALL information on the site.
This could have been negated by providing ancillary information elsewhere away from the original site if it was struggling to cope with demand (though quite honestly any website that has an issue with this has bigger fish to fry with regard to digital infrastructure than my quips within this blog post).
5. Occupy Time
Offering some kind of distraction always seems to make time go faster. A simple link here to some offsite hosted video trailers (that the current site already has) could be a good way to do this and also satiate users’ desire to find out more about what they want to book in the first place.
6. Group waits
This is perhaps a little bit more left-field, but providing a simplistic gamification solution to alleviate boredom and instil a degree of camaraderie (or competition!) amongst those in the queue, not only occupies time but also allows the user to form a mental model that they are not alone, and that others are also going through the same experience.
Whilst it’s easy to sit here and hypothesise on what should have been done, it is just that, a hypothesis. I do not know what is and isn’t doable within the server and website architecture to split site traffic to reduce dependencies and limit the All or Nothing approach to accessing content depending on need.
This article is based on conjecture for the most part, but there is no escaping how understanding human psychology (and in this instance, the psychology of queuing specifically) could optimise an awkward situation for a company and mitigate the loss of potential customers.