November 20, 2008

The Science of Lines

I thought that this article about the study of queuing was interesting. Especially as it sometimes feels like I spend my life waiting in lines for one thing or another. And in case you are wondering, the answer is that you stand in line, not on line.

If you read the whole article you'll see that they found that knowing how long you are going to wait reduces anxiety. Duh. I could have predicted that. But it still doesn't solve the problems you sometimes encounter when stuck behind the man/woman who screams into their cellphone or whose unpleasant scent makes you want to gag.

You may not know it, but the seemingly mundane task of forming a queue at the airport, a fast-food joint or a post-Thanksgiving midnight sale is the subject of careful study by experts in the field of queuing psychology.

The findings may not always reduce wait times, but they can cut frustration and make people feel better, or even happy, about waiting in line, said Richard Larson, who has researched queuing psychology for more than two decades.

"You can change a queuing experience into a very positive experience," said Larson, director of the Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

To do that, businesses where people often wait in line must realize some basic principles of queuing psychology.

Eliminating empty time, for example, makes waits seem shorter, Larson found in his research.
Visitors lining up for attractions at theme parks see this principle at work with queues that often use clever design and technology to make the line itself entertaining.

"We like to view [queues] as the first scene in the story, whatever the story of that particular attraction is," said Joe Garlington, creative vice president of interactives at Walt Disney Imagineering, which develops Disney parks and resorts.

The line to one popular attraction at Epcot features cameras and large interactive screens that allow visitors to see themselves and play games, such as trying to burst virtual water balloons to reveal a hidden image, Garlington said.

People waiting in line for a comedy show at Walt Disney World are asked to text message jokes that may be used during the main event.

"It works as our warm-up act essentially for the show, but it also takes time while people are working through that and so it keeps them entertained while they're waiting," Garlington said.

"We do study the psychology, try to understand what our guests are thinking and make sure that we're keeping them happy as they move through the lines."

Disney employs more than 75 industrial engineers who help the company with queue management at its parks around the world, said Marilyn Waters, director of media relations at Walt Disney Imagineering.

Social justice

Fair play -- or the idea of first come, first served -- is at the heart of most successful queues. It's one of the reasons most banks, airlines and fast-food restaurants have switched from several open lines that force customers to choose the line they think is moving fastest, to a single serpentine line, which guarantees first come, first served, Larson said.

Violation of fair play can lead to "queue rage." Larson himself became interested in queuing psychology after a frustrating experience he calls the "red bike incident."

Use the link above to read the rest.

No comments: