There is more to life than simply increasing its speed

(Originally published in February 2016)

With today’s post, I hope to clear up a common presumption in the relationship between experiences and efficiency.

In many situations, people tend to think that the ideal experience is synonymous with the most efficient experience.

For instance, think about the last time you were locked out of your house, called customer support, wanted to rent a movie, or needed to visit the DMV.1 For most of us, the most enjoyable journey seems to be an instantaneous one; we want results as quickly and as hassle-free as possible.

A single service path

Learn more about service commitments in my post,
‘Customer service is only one aspect of a service’

In many cases, however, operational perfection is either impossible,2 economically unfeasible,3 or doesn’t actually produce the most happiness.4

Take for example, Eurostar’s popular train route from London to Paris. About 15 years ago they asked a bunch of engineers, “How do we make the journey to Paris better?” Their solution was to spend six billion pounds building completely new tracks from London to the coast, which would knock about 40 minutes off of a three-and-half-hour journey.

Ad executive Rory Sutherland reframed this massive infrastructure overhaul by proposing:

“Why is it necessary to spend 6 billion pounds speeding up the Eurostar train when, for a about 10 percent of that money, you could have top supermodels, male and female, serving free Chateau Petrus to all the passengers for the entire duration of the journey? You’d still have 5 billion left in change, and people would ask for the trains to be slowed down.”
Rory Sutherland @ TED: Sweat the small stuff

Reframing to the rescue

While every solution may not be as witty and entertaining as Rory’s, designer, UC San Diego professor, and author Don Norman explains a major problem with most research on waiting lines:

“In these studies, the emphasis is on the mathematics of efficiency: what is the best scheme for handling customers with the least cost? How many clerks must one hire to handle an expected number of customers? . . . All this is indeed necessary, but it misses the human element; what the experience is like for both customer and clerk. The overall emphasis on mathematics has resulted in the horrible experiences we have today, where cost and efficiency are the critical metrics and fairness, equity, and the experience of the people are ignored.”
Don Norman, The Psychology of Waiting Lines5

Norman goes on to explain how this same fundamental problem — this focus on operational efficiency — applies not only to waiting lines but to any industry, product, or service situation that involves a delayed outcome.

In Rory Sutherland’s train example, fast was completely replaced by fun, but the secret is that we need both! We need healthy partnerships between fast and fun. Thankfully, instead of obsessing over efficiency, we can also intentionally design and deliver positive experiences.

When considering long waiting lines or any painful encounter, there are many theories about how people experience, process, and form memories.6 One rough model of a negative experience is as follows:

Total Pain = Intensity * Duration

Based on this equation,7 we can design experiences that reduce a customer’s pain in two ways:

  1. By making time seem to pass quicker (shorter duration)
  2. By reducing the discomfort of the experience (lower intensity)8

Two Examples:

1. Disney World

No one takes a family vacation to Disney World solely for an “efficient experience.” We go to Disney to have enjoyable, immersive, and memorable experiences. We go to Disney to share magical experiences with those we love. And unless you’re participating in a runDisney Marathon, you’re not going to Disney with a checklist, a stopwatch, and a pair of olympic sprinting shoes.

Oh boy!

This is not the magical Disney vacation he’d been dreaming about…

Founded more than 40 years ago, Disney has had plenty of time to think about the frustration of waiting lines, and they now have a whole bag of tricks up their sleeve to entertain guests while distorting their sense of time.

“Disney attacks each negative effect of the queue with the determination of that crocodile hunting down Captain Hook. Since the sight of a long line is demoralizing, every ride has a serpentine queue that winds through something like a movie set, with plenty of distractions. The Haunted Mansion has a waiting room with special effects. Space Mountain has 87 game stations before the ride.9
Though no one wants to see the line, people still want to know how long the wait will take, so the waiting time is advertised out in front of every ride.10 There is even a free app, My Disney Experience, that will tell you the wait times of every ride within 200 feet of you…
But Disney does not limit itself to managing expectations and optical illusions. There is an entire command center beneath Cinderella Castle that is ready for action. According to The New York Times, if a popular ride like Pirates of the Caribbean is looking slow, the command center may give the order to release more boats. Or dispatch Disney characters to entertain people while they wait.”
Op-Ed by Vanessa Woods

2. 2012 Olympics

In 2012, the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) had the goal of “delivering a magical atmosphere, an electrifying experience for competitors and spectators.” To do so, they created a Spectator Experience team11 that was tasked with, among other things, promoting “positive crowd flows to ensure that spectators … were attracted and retained in a way they were happy about.” Alex Nisbett, who was a project manager on this team, shares these examples:

“Entertainment in a very basic form is good for making people do what you want them to do. [We had] the Royal Marine Band stand by the inside of the gates, and when the gates open in the morning they start playing and marching away from the gates. It’s a little bit like that story of the Pied Piper from Hamelin: People follow them — and that’s what we want them to do! Because -and we’ve all seen it- the moment spectators come inside they [stop to] take pictures of the family — and that causes a logjam. We want people to move away, and we do that with music.
Conversely, sometimes we want spectators to hold back because we don’t want everybody to leave at the same time. So, we provide entertainment for them to linger a bit longer.”
Alex Nisbett @ The 2015 Service Experience Conference

Faster isn’t always better

In the above cases, the focus on improving an experience’s quality instead of its efficiency was able to reduce, or altogether avoid, a customer’s pain by transforming their experience into something more acceptable — and in some cases even desirable.

Plotting Experiences through the lens of Time vs. Enjoyment

This took waaaaay too many iterations to get right

People often fixate on changing an experience’s duration (green arrows) while ignoring
possible changes in enjoyment (dashed blue arrows)

While customers may never get excited by the prospect of waiting lines, what people think they want isn’t always what will make them happiest.12 As the quote famously (mis)attributed to Henry Ford goes, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Instead of fixating on efficiency — often at the expense of the experience — we should aim to provide people with holistically balanced experiences that are both efficient and enjoyable.

“There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.”
— Mahatma Gandhi

  1. Note: For the sake of consistency we’re discussing customer experiences in this blog post – but this applies just as easily to employees or other stakeholders.

  2. We STILL haven’t mastered teleportation??

  3. In theme parks the waits are deliberate. “What else would we do with the people?” I was once told by a high-level executive of one of the major theme park companies. “Its too expensive to add more rides.” 
    Waits are unavoidable when there are more people than resources, so in this case, although the waiting was deliberate, the company’s response was to make those waits as enjoyable as possible. —Don Norman

  4. Our friends over at Snook blogged about this topic a few years ago: Lean and Service Design. Understanding the Differences.

  5. This is an amazing paper, and a MUST READ if you’re into this kinda stuff

  6. Incidentally, memory is more important than actuality.

  7. DISCLAIMER: Pain is not actually linear. The following equation is simplified and doesn’t account for many theories of behavioral psychology such as the ‘Peak-End Rule‘ and ‘Hedonic Adaptation‘. If you’d like to learn a lot more about behavioral psychology, check out Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

  8. The Wong-Baker FACES Pain Rating Scale used in the medical field is a common, yet interesting example of pain intensity measurement.

  9. By tying the ride experience into a longer storyline arc, wait times can be transformed into an excitement-building intro that leads up to the actual ride (the story’s climax). 
    Source: 5 Amazing Storytelling Techniques That Make Disney’s Space Mountain an Unforgettable Experience.

  10. Actually, the time displayed is always longer than what’s predicted (e.g., display 60 min when it’s actually 45 min). This way the wait time will be shorter than guests expect, and they’ll pleasantly surprised. 
    Source: Psychology of Queueing

  11. Which was, surprisingly, the first Olympic organizing committee to explicitly acknowledge spectators as one of its key client groups.

  12. Interestingly, because of ‘Hedonic Adaptation’ and ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ the reverse is often true (i.e., ‘A pleasure delayed is a pleasure enhanced.’)
    For example, we put presents under the tree before Christmas and deliberately refrain from opening our gifts before the allotted time. This delayed gratification actually enhances a gift’s value.

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