Designing a Better Post Office Experience

originally published Spring 2016 on

I spend a lot of time thinking about how public services and institutions — from the United States Census to school programs — can become more reflexive, more representative, and less intimidating. Few government services stir up the frustration of their everyday “users” more than a disorganized US Post Office in a major city.

This spring a 90-minute wait (complete with arguments between queued-up customers and plenty of grumbling) for a 90-second transaction got me thinking about how the space and systems of an urban post office might be reimagined. Here are three spatial and interpersonal design interventions that could improve the post office experience.

Specialized Lines

Not everyone is at the post office to mail a letter. Many urbanites go weekly to check their PO boxes or pick up packages. In some under-banked communities, the post office’s ability to issue money orders attracts customers. Others still go for a bit a chance to socialize and cross an item off their to do list. Of course, as with any service, there also people waiting their turn to lodge a complaint. Having specialized lines for the post offices many services could help cut down wait time and what is often a single, snaking line into a smaller set of lines.

Staff Arrangements

Changing the seating of post office workers from side-by-side to around a slight curve allows them to communicate more easily with each other both verbally and non-verbally. The curved counter has the additional benefit of being more inviting than a high, imposing counter that brings to mind a judge’s bench.

Partial walls between each of the worker’s stations allow them to personalize their workspace and keep frequently used forms and slips at the ready for customers.

Communication Assistance

While the post office, like all government services, is supposed to make allowances for language barriers, interactions between staff and customers are frequently lost in translation. These frustrating and time-consuming misunderstandings can be reduced by training staff in transactional vocabulary commonly spoken languages in the area (unlikely given the cost), providing customers and staff with a well-designed set laminated cards that act as communication aids, or scheduling multilingual staff on certain days or seating them strategically next to English-only speakers to jump in and assist.