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The surprising psychology of waiting in queues

Waiting in queues can elicit powerful emotions in us. Stress. Boredom. The nagging sensation that one’s life is slipping away. And of course we believe that the other line moves faster. While losing to the line at our left, drives us to despair, winning the race against the one to our right, does little to lift our spirits. We almost always fixate on the line we’re losing to and rarely the one we’re beating.

All of this makes for a lasting impression on your customers’ perception about your brand if you’re a hypermarket or a bank or an airline or any business whose business it is to serve people. So how does one tackle it?

Some years ago, executives at a Houston airport faced a troubling customer-relations issue. Passengers were lodging an inordinate number of complaints about the long waits at baggage claim. In response, the executives increased the number of baggage handlers working that shift. The plan worked: the average wait fell to eight minutes, well within industry benchmarks. But the complaints persisted.

Puzzled, the airport executives undertook a more careful, on-site analysis. They found that it took passengers a minute to walk from their arrival gates to baggage claim and seven more minutes to get their bags. Roughly 88 percent of their time, in other words, was spent standing around waiting for their bags.

So the airport decided on a new approach: instead of reducing wait times, it moved the arrival gates away from the main terminal and routed bags to the outermost carousel. Passengers now had to walk six times longer to get their bags. Complaints dropped to near zero!

Occupied time (walking to baggage claim) feels shorter than unoccupied time (standing at the carousel). “Often the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself,” says, M.I.T. operations researcher Richard Larson, considered to be the world’s foremost expert on lines.

Our expectations further affect how we feel about lines. Beating expectations buoys our mood. All else being equal, people who wait less than they anticipated, leave happier than those who wait longer than expected. This is why Disney, the universally acknowledged master of applied queuing psychology, overestimates wait times for rides, so that its guests (never customers, always guests) are pleasantly surprised when they ascend ‘Space Mountain’ ahead of schedule.

This is a powerful ploy because our memories of a queuing experience, are strongly influenced by the final moments, according to research conducted by Ziv Carmon, a professor of marketing at the business school Insead and the nobel-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman. When a long wait ends on a happy note, we tend to look back on it positively, even if we were miserable much of the time. Conversely, if negative emotions dominate in the final minutes, our retrospective audit of the process will skew toward cynicism, even if the experience as a whole was relatively painless.

But the biggest influence on our perception of queues has got to be ‘fairness’: what you feel when someone jumps the queue. If you haven’t faced a situation like this yet in India, where jumping the queue is a survival skill, you must be a celebrity. Ranbir Kapoor did it when I was first in line for the application of an international driving license. He assumed it was ok for celebrities to break queues. So he simply smiled, said sorry but guess what, it worked!

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

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if you're good at math, consider yourself blessed

I struggled all my studying years with MATH (Mental Abuse to Humans). I was so bad at math that I had even developed a method of memorizing patterns to solve problems, so that I could apply them in case a similar question came up in the exam paper. If you were and are good at math, I have very high regards for you, because most of the human race is simply bad at it.

Consider these two promotions. One is a flat ‘33% off’ on the MRP. The other is 33% more quantity of the product free. In short – ‘33% extra free’. Are both similar? Which one seems more attractive to you?

If both are similar in terms of a proposition to you, but you still prefer ‘33% extra free’, you’re in the majority. In a study, Akshay Rao, the General Mills Chair in Marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, asked undergraduate students to evaluate two deals on loose coffee beans — one with 33% more beans for free, the other at 33% off the price. All the participants chose ‘33% extra free’, inspite of ‘33% off’ being a quantitatively bigger and better offer favouring the customer. (33% off = 50% extra free)

The reason why we opt for ‘33% extra free’ is not just that we suck at math, but we are also infatuated with the idea of getting something for free. It seems as if the power of ‘free’ makes us worse at math.

Now, how you take advantage of this will depend on whether you are a consumer or a marketer.

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

Goddess of magic can save you fuelRemember being told by a kid in an ad sometime back, to switch our cars off at signals, because saving fuel meant saving money? If you didn’t, crores of tax payers money (in India), in the form of TV, radio, outdoor advertising went down the drain. Ok, so you are one of the few who do recall this message. Have you changed your behaviour? Do you now switch off your car at traffic signals? Does your driver do it? Have you asked your driver to do it? Ever?

Most of us don’t. It’s too much effort. You would first need to switch the AC off and then turn the ignition switch off, to turn the engine off. And when the signal turns green, you gotta turn the ignition key on, get frantically honked at (we’re talking India remember), change the gear from neutral to first, get frantically honked at again, put the hand brake down, and finally get moving. Oh yes, turn the AC on again. Even if you are highly eco-conscious or highly stingy, it’s still too much effort.

Here comes the Goddess of Magic. Isis, the Greek Goddess of Magic, is the inspiration behind the name of an innovative automobile product called, the same in capital letters – ISIS – Intelligent Stop Immediate Start!

Intelligent Stop Immediate Start (ISIS) is a device, which if fitted inside your car, can save you anywhere between Rs. 500 – Rs. 2,500 for every Rs. 10,000 you spend on fuel. The way it works is that when your car comes to a halt at a traffic signal or while in stop-and-go traffic, and you put the car in neutral, ISIS switches the engine off automatically. To start the engine back, you simply have to press the clutch. No additional effort required. Solutions made keeping in mind that humans are built lazy, work well.

What about the AC you must be wondering. ISIS comes with a built-in sensor, which detects even a minor drop in cabin temperature. If ISIS detects a drop in temperature beyond what is set by the driver, it restarts the engine automatically. As per tests conducted, the cabin temperature remains constant for about 1-2 minutes when the engine is switched off. Most signals restart, within 60 seconds in any case. And if you wish to start the engine/AC at any time, you simply need to press the clutch and the engine with the AC starts again.

One more benefit of the Goddess of Magic, besides saving fuel and money – the reduction in particulate matter, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide – the stuff that’s weakening our lungs.

ISIS has been developed by Indent – Dhruv Chaudhry’s company. Indent is an auto research and development company, which focuses on creating innovative auto products that, benefit the environment and improve safety. To know more about ISIS click here.

Our advice to the PCRA (Petroleum Conservation Research Association) and Mr. S. Jaipal Reddy, (Union Minister of Petroleum & Natural Gas, India) – instead of spending crores on building awareness for saving fuel via advertising, change actual behaviour by promoting products like ISIS and help India save trillions worth of fuel.

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

Trust advertising to mislead

 

Chances are you apply paste on your toothbrush the same way it is shown in the ads (as shown in the illustration above). Then you place it under the tap to add a bit of water to make it moist. I hear you saying ‘How else?’ right?

Well, here’s what the dentists recommend. Dentists say we should squeeze the paste at a 90 degrees angle into the brush from the top, so that the space in between the bristles gets filled with the paste + that we don’t add any water.

This works in two ways. First, the paste keeps getting released from the toothbrush at a consistent pace, ensuring that the paste comes into use, even after the initial burst of foam in the mouth. Second, dentists recommend we don’t add water because it leads to breaking and slipping of the paste out of the mouth. (You might have noticed those chunks of paste falling into the basin or on your clothes, if you are clumsy like me.) Dentists say that in anticipation of brushing our teeth, our mouths generate enough saliva, to ensure that the experience of brushing is not too dry for our liking. Together, this ensures that the quantity of paste used is just right and there is minimum wastage.

Don’t trust me? I have started doing it since few weeks. The paste lasts longer and is therefore more effective. Nothing gets wasted, I don’t act clumsy (atleast not in this circumstance) and the mouth doesn’t feel dry at all without the water. However small this may sound, I’m glad I learned the right way to brush, never mind that it’s happened at the age of 34.

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

Here’s a smart way of how design can be at the core of how your company does business. This was in the news in the US in 2008, but is increasingly becoming relevant to the way design can be applied to get better business results today.

U.P.S, the logistics company, realized that their trucks would sit in the left lane, engine idling, waiting for oncoming traffic to clear, so that it could make a left-hand turn, something that was wasteful — of time and peace of mind, for sure, but also of gas and therefore money. We’re talking about more than 95,000 big brown trucks delivering packages every day. U.P.S realized that when you operate a gigantic fleet of vehicles, tiny improvements in the efficiency of each truck, translates to huge savings overall. So here’s what they did:

This design thinking helped UPS shave over 28.5 million miles off its delivery routes. That in turn resulted in saving roughly three million gallons of gas! It also reduced CO2 emissions by 31,000 metric tons.

So next time you are in any of the cramped metros of India (which would be quite often), plan your route so that you take as many free left turns as possible.

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

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