The Study of Waiting Lines

The Waiting Experience—

Why do we wait? To distinguish ourselves as a niche community? To anticipate, expect and be rewarded? How do we experience waiting — through our digital distractions, conversations? Humans desire instant gratification, any part of the experience that is unexpected, or seemingly “un-designed” directly influences the consumer perception. 
“Services are experienced in real-time.”

Project Deliverables—

Consider and analyze an existing line system, collect data and observations that will help produce a visual/video that communicates your analysis — perhaps in the forms animation, graphic, photo series, etc. Propose a redesign moving forward.

The Exchange @ Tepper

Located in 1/F Posner Hall, generally open 8:00am — 8:30pm, offers breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks and drinks.
Thoughts & Observations
  • During what hours is The Exchange most busy? How do the queue structures change throughout the day?
  • Stakeholders — staff, customers (purchasing), customers (browsing)
  • Where are the points of anxiety within the waiting line?
  • Prominent corner at entrance — length of line is disguised and perceived fairness is higher (Don Norman).
  • “Line appears longer in filled space” — how do we design space to look more spacious? E.g. high ceilings, light hues, mirrors, monochrome, big windows.
  • Regular users tend to know where the quickest points of entry are.
General User Flow

Enter Line > Wait > Read Menu > Order > Wait > Pay > Wait > Exit

Waiting seems to dominate 80% of the process. During the other times, consumers tend to be distracted by menu boards, anxiety to order/find seats/find cash or credit/collect utensils/move up the line.

Early Observations

The images below provide 12 points of “anxiety” within the user experience at the Exchange — from the need for human-to-human interactions, in-line experience; defined by points of uncertainty, stress, questioning fairness/pace, etc. The image in the center illustrates several routes taken by consumers from initial observation.

Existing Line Structures

Some examples of system-defined structures, where lines are affected by the placement of kiosks, specific signage, stanchions, sticker guides etc.

Mcdonald’s Next
“Dual Point” Ordering
Disneyland | Bus Stop | Seated Lines

Some examples of human-defined structures, where lines are affected by social norms (the norm of lining up facing someone else’s back), physical space — how much surrounding open space there is, etc.

Airport | Food Trucks | Hybrid — digital numbering system defines waiting, free/open physical space

Data Visualization References

Below are some graphics I found through Pinterest, where I can imagine motion being implemented into these designs. For the visual on the left, it would be interesting to explore the layered variation in lines parallel to routes taken by users, and through a moving dot, sync and map the different, changing axes on the side. The center visual also seems fun — in terms of showing drastic changes through the motion of stacking and changing color gradients.

MINT is an example of the visual style I personally am really into — Parts of the animation, especially the progress bar at 00:45 is something I would like to implement in my design.

More reference material I looked at for visualization style:

Data Collection

Quantitative and Qualitative Data
Data Analysis & Observations
  • Current line structure is a working model for general flow, other than the different intermediate steps and intersections taken after the order stage.
  • Significantly higher pace during peak hours
  • Waiting and food prep behavior significantly different during peak and non-peak hours
  • Physical space is divided into “low movement” half and “high movement” half
  • First designed data collection day was 04/06 Thursday — a rain day! There were no lines at 12:30–12:50 — weather conditions as line factors?

Initial Visualization Ideas

  • Interesting variables: noise, anxiety, payment methods, hunger/amount purchased, “early exit”/impatience, happiness level, etc.
  • Thickness of lines as third variable?
  • What touch points distract from the wait? Menu? Conversations?
  • Existing visible vs invisible lines — system vs human defined systems
  • Anxiety correlating to sound/thumping/pacing of animation
Developing Visual Style

My first instinct was to translate the physical space into the most direct map-form for better spatial analysis — almost like an architectural blueprint. Beyond the furniture and physical constraints of the space, I wanted to explore how else I could communicate the place. Organizing it through static v.s. interactive sections? Levels of movement?

Early sketches of space and animation ideas. Include some kind of progress bar for cooking process? Animate customers as bowling balls creating their own tracks? Some kind of ball form sliding into “carved out” paths within space? Based on feedback — consider animating exploded/collapsed views of environment? Think surface studio/apple product videos.

Early Graphical Process

Inspired by the graphical references I had earlier, I wanted to maintain a really minimalist type visual style and communicate furniture in the simplest fidelity in order to not draw too much attention away from the movement of the lines later on. It was difficult to find the right perspective for the plane but after some trial and error, the isometric view seemed best for showing the most information of the space in fake-3D graphical form.

Considering adding various gamification features if time permits — for progress bars of food prep to appear when dots change from red to yellow (signaling the placing of an order), “blowing-bubbles” animation of dollar signs implemented with coin-drop sounds — could emphasize the pacing/density of lines and movement of people through visual + auditory.

The animating process took longer than expected, as I had to customize each dot to the data I collected instead of using a null object to design a series of dots to move through the exact same path. I also tried various ways of incorporating the interactions between customers and furniture (see image above), but it did not quite translate the same way as I envisioned it. The problem I ran into from asking my peers for feedback was that the furniture interactions made the system more complex — which may be good or bad as it takes the focus away from the actual line movement.

Considered Axes & Patterns
  • Focused on users purchasing to-go
  • General v.s. individual flow — trends in pre-order and post-order. Pre-order flow tends to be the same for most, post-order varies — some users like to pay first v.s. some like to receive their food first, etc.
  • Pacing
  • Population Density
  • Data Count — Line length, entry and exit of location
Critique Iteration
  • Change clock typeface
  • Increase legend type size, especially numbers
  • Arrow diverge from style
  • Consider gamification features with sound
  • Consider Exchange staff and relationship with line
  • Consider more emphasis on “final trends”, how to emphasize routes most taken
  • Distorted plane? Try to make hallway part less skewed in relation to table perspective (isometric).
  • Further — consider “zoom” modes to “look” into individual behaviors
  • Overlap/compare both routes
Refined Iteration
  • More information for summary/findings — more specific key insights? e.g. speed, why the ‘most popular route’ shapes are the way they are, etc.
  • “User” → “Consumer”, more context-friendly
  • Add sound!
Redesign Proposal Brainstorm
  • (~8 min, can be video form or slides or etc.)
  • Perhaps changing line structure through signage implementation — looking at system-defined structure examples above —
  • Numbered system e.g. “1. order here”, “2. pick up here”, etc. in order to set expectations for the user.
  • Improving factors from Don Norman’s Psychology of Waiting Lines: mathematics of efficiency, human experience in terms of fairness,
  • Provide menus throughout the course of the line.
  • Maintain architecture of space as single line increases perceived level of fairness.
  • “Line appears longer in filled space” — design space to look more spacious through higher ceilings, light hues, mirrors, monochromatic colors, big windows.

Final Iteration
Proposed Intervention

This proposal aims to reduce the confusion created by the lack of instruction to the physical flow of the space after the ordering process — by designing a single, clockwise flow enclosed by line stanchions, it creates a straight forward system for customers. This system would be most effective during peak hours, as customers are able to pay and place their order at the cashier location. As they move through the line, encountering sides and drinks, their time is essentially stalled so that there is sufficient time for chefs to prepare their food. When they arrive to the food/kitchen counter, their perceived food-waiting time is significantly decreased. It also promotes a high fairness environment due to the linear set-up.

Designed customer flow:

  1. Pay and place order of food item (if applicable).
  2. Pick up sides and drinks.
  3. Pick up salad/hot food/sandwich.
  4. Pick up utensils/condiments.
  5. Exit location.


  • Possibility of customers not paying for certain sides or drinks — may encourage dishonesty
  • Reduced seating space — would require more condensed long/bar tables, but may not be much of a problem as The Exchange tends to be more of a food for pick-up location.
  • Not effective for non-peak hours — will likely not require line stanchions during non-peak, as customer behavior changes within an empty environment. Customers more likely to sit and wait for their order to be called. Though dishonesty would likely be less of a problem as movement within an empty space is more prominent.