The Waiting Game

by Sam Wander

George Mikes once said that “An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.” Having been an Englishman for as long as I can remember, I understand the comfort in queueing implicitly. I think it’s because our queues are full of strict unwritten rules, and in these rules we find order and a sense of fairness.

You know where you are in a queue.

I’ve been in a few interesting virtual queues recently. I queued to buy tickets to a show at The Roundhouse. The venue knew it would be mighty popular, so instead of letting the system get bombarded (and then watch it collapse under the strain, to the aggravation of countless fans) they simply made people line up. Just like they would for the actual box office.

You waited in a line, which clearly explained how many people were ahead of you. Gradually you moved forward until you were ‘in’ and able to choose your tickets.

How very fair.

And then this happened:

To much hype and fanfare, Orchestra released Mailbox and held the better part of a million people at the door. While this could well be a clever marketing ploy, it seems they had valid reasons to let people in gradually. Remarkably, people were by and large not frustrated. In fact, they sort of loved it. Techcrunch writer Darrell Etherington went so far as to say that the ‘simple act of repeatedly opening and closing the app represents more engagement than I can muster for around 90 percent of the other titles currently gracing my iPhone’s home screen.’ Hundreds if not thousands of people posted pictures comparing their positions.

What’s going on here?

Transparency: What queues really offer is a depiction of time. Through their (quite literal) order a queuer can assess their likely wait. We do it unconsciously every time we scan the supermarket checkouts. We make informed decisions with available information.

Fairness: Desperately refreshing a ticket site and mucking your way through the checkout process, with five tabs open doing the same thing, is a poor experience. Offline it might be called a stampede (not fair, and sometimes fatal).

Opportunity cost: Once you’ve invested time in something, it’s much harder to give up. We’ve all experienced this. If you leave a queue after 10 minutes, that’s 10 minutes wasted where you could have been elsewhere. And you just might end up at the back again later. Better to persevere, you tell yourself.

Anticipation: This depends on the reward at the end, but sometimes (and quite often) scarcity builds a sense of excitement. You’re one of the lucky ones.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is the way queues depict time. Mailbox could have presented their waiting screen a number of different ways:

  • Estimated time remaining: 2 weeks, 1 day, 2 hours, 44 minutes
  • A simple progress bar based on the number of people in front of you
  • A rotating egg timer
  • A sign saying ‘Closed for lunch, be right back’

None of these would have affected how quickly your account was set up. Yet each of these would have created a very different experience, and almost certainly a different appetite for waiting.

Let’s consider the humble progress bar for a moment. Progress bars lie to us. They’re not accurate depictions of time. It’s not deception or malevolence from developers, they simply can’t calculate progress in an appropriate way. Systems cannot predict how long most tasks will take. We’d be better off looking at a blinking light, or spinning beach ball. Maybe an impatient tapping hand? Early interaction designers were trying to be helpful depicting progress, but the depiction is mostly false.

Some designers would seem to have taken this insight, and opted to entertain or engage users instead. Sim City 2000 famously offered all kinds of absurd loading messages, the most famous being ‘Reticulating Splines’. Perhaps most charming was ‘Deciding which message to display next’.

World of Goo have picked up the mantle with this school of loading:

In a game context, entertaining users seems appropriate. Many opt to display hints or game-related information in these interludes, though some modern games have achieved ‘seamless loading’. This means allowing gameplay to continue in some way while loading the next level in the background (for example, loading while a player runs up a long flight of stairs which is actually a loop). The Resident Evil series possibly pioneered this approach with their opening door / entering lift / climbing ladder scenes, though with mixed results due to the technical limitations of the time.

Seamless loading should be an ambition for other software. Instagram have taken a bold step in this direction by beginning to upload photographs before users hit ‘Share’. It’s a simple behind-the-scenes technical decision that dramatically impacts the feeling of speed. Especially if you like to think of witty captions.

Technical limitations are of course the root of most waiting scenarios. If the ticket sites could handle the load when Beyonce tickets went on sale, there wouldn’t be a problem to solve. If your computer could boot up in a split second, you wouldn’t need a progress bar. In hindsight, this cyclical progress bar was rather earnest:

If you can provide honest and useful metrics… do so honestly and usefully. It empowers users, helps manage expectations, and might just stir excitement.

If you can’t provide honest and useful metrics… don’t provide dishonest and useless ones. Do engage users. Be informative. Maybe crack a joke.

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For a perspicacious, and often hilarious, look at English behaviour: anthropologist Kate Fox’s book ‘Watching the English‘ is un-put-down-able.

Seems, not everyone was so fond of the Mailbox queue.