If I were to ask someone what they like best about Google search, I suspect they’d cite its speed. No question, Google searches are fast. And these days, fast is good. But is speed the most important thing? Is it possible, for example, for an online tool to be too fast? That is, is it ever the case that when results are returned too quickly, people begin to doubt their credibility?

It’s an interesting question and one worth asking because, obviously, people want the best of both worlds. We live in an age ruled by the power of now, yet at the same time, people demand high-quality results. But typically, there’s a trade-off. More often than not, a better result requires more effort, and more effort typically requires more time. And more time, of course, often translates to more wait time, if you’re on the receiving end of the product or service being delivered.

In this article, we’ll explore the pain—and the value—of waiting, and how the wait itself, especially in online experiences, can be designed to increase customer satisfaction and a customer’s intent to purchase again.

The Pain of Waiting

In any given day, how much time would you say you spend simply waiting? Probably, more than you’d like. Indeed, waiting seems to be an integral part of life itself. But, as ubiquitous as waiting is, most people don’t tolerate it well.

Many retailers, such as Rite Aid, Walgreens, grocers and department stores alike, offer little afterthought shopping trinkets near the checkout to make waiting feel useful to customers, or even provide snacks for purchase to make waiting more pleasurable and profitable for the merchant.

In retail and service environments, although we sometimes encounter waiting lines or a limited number of store associates, the wait may not seem quite so painful, simply because we’re likely to get distracted with other things available in the environment. Rest assured, store designers have given considerable thought to what is accessible and viewable to customers while they wait in line. (Indeed, the checkout line is one of the few places where retailers have, quite literally: a captive audience!)

But when you’re sitting in front of your PC, waiting for an airline site to return a list of flights that meet your criteria, for example, it’s a different situation. When was the last time you spoke not-so-kindly to your computer because it was taking too long?

Because waiting can be painful and frustrating, companies often seek to deliver their products and services as quickly as possible. One way to alleviate wait time is to provide avenues for self-service, the ability for people to serve themselves without depending on someone else to get their needs met. Increasingly, in almost all industries, this has been the way of the future. Because technology has become more and more sophisticated, self service systems increasingly run faster with less error—a win for businesses and consumers alike.

And so it’s easy to see why businesses and UX designers are constantly trying to raise the bar on providing solutions that perform faster and are easier and less complex to use. But ironically, there may be a downside to this…

The Value of Work or Effort

Think about the last time you interacted with a store associate or customer service rep. What was it that made that transaction pleasing, or at the very least, satisfactory? Probably, the demeanor of the person was a factor, and there were probably a host of other factors, too. But there’s probably one aspect of the scenario that was instrumental to your level of satisfaction: how much work or effort the person expended on your behalf.

It turns out that we often use this “level of work” metric in order to gauge the quality of the customer service outcome, especially when it’s difficult to tell whether a particular problem or issue has been completely resolved.

The Apple Genius Bar is one such place that's been designed to be an overarching experience that delightfully connects from the moment you initiate an appointment, to the moment you walk in the store and your geniuses are awaiting you.

In situations where we’re unfamiliar with a particular domain or we’re unable to directly see that the issue has been resolved, we’re left to make a judgment based on cues that are available—such as how much effort has been expended on our behalf.

If we believe more effort takes more time, but results in a better outcome, more than likely we’re more willing to wait. The length of the wait, then, can influence the amount of value we assign to the service if we also perceive a justification for the wait.

This is an extremely important aspect of successful customer service—but it’s entirely contingent on the customer’s ability to perceive or be aware of the work or effort expended. When we interact with human service providers directly, this is not usually an issue. But in situations where a user is interacting with a computer or mobile device, there is no visibility into the amount of work being done by the system behind the scenes.

Designing the Wait

When interacting with online tools and sites, not only can we not see (and therefore not appreciate) the amount of work being done, but there is often little available to distract us from focusing on the wait. The wait itself becomes very salient when we’re staring at the screen, seeing only the progress icon as it swirls seemingly) endlessly as a result of whatever task we’ve initiated.

And herein lies a challenge for UX designers: how to design experiences that actually help users appreciate the wait. Earlier I mentioned that people are willing to wait – provided they perceive work being done on their behalf in order to justify the wait. One way to accomplish this, then, is to design systems that are more intentionally transparent about revealing the amount of work being done.

Spirit Airlines offers a UX interface that allows potential buyers to avoid waiting by utilizing this Notify Me feature shown here.

For example, some airline sites, such as Hipmunk, don’t just use a spinning progress icon to convey wait time. Instead, they show users exactly what they’re doing (as users wait) by displaying a running real-time tally of which airlines are being searched in order to complete the task. Not only does this capture the user’s attention, thereby providing a means of ‘distraction,’ but it also provides a window into the extent of work being done.

This is important, of course, because when users don’t have visibility into the work going on, they may end up relying on the only heuristic they have for judging the value of the service – the length of wait time. In the absence of knowing what the system is doing during the wait, they may judge the value of the system simply by how long they’re required to wait. The shorter, the better. (Think: Google)

When People Prefer to Wait

In an intriguing study via Harvard Business School, researchers sought to find out to what extent system transparency might influence users’ willingness to wait, along with their perceptions of service provider effort, when using online systems. To this end, they created an experiment where they asked participants to evaluate and choose their preference between two websites that delivered identical outcomes, but with different experiences to achieve those outcomes.

Specifically, each participant was asked to perform the same task on two separate websites:

Findings from the study revealed that those who had experienced operational transparency actually preferred that experience over the instantaneous results when required to wait for both 30 seconds and 60 seconds. Specifically, roughly 62 percent preferred waiting when the experience included operational transparency! That is, even when given the option for instantaneous results (the exact same results as the other site), they still preferred using a service with a longer delivery time, but only when the labor being performed by that service was made salient via operational transparency.

These results are significant for UX designers and business professionals who are seeking to improve customer satisfaction with online systems that require waiting time as part of the experience.

How Long Will People Wait?

In light of what we’ve been discussing, it’s important to consider how long people are actually willing to wait. Surely, there must be an upper boundary beyond which no amount of “transparency” will make a positive difference.

Although it’s hard to say exactly where this boundary might be, or what might drive or define it, one critical factor would probably be consumer experience and expectations. Likely, people have some idea as to how long it should take to deliver a particular result or outcome, so it’s important that service providers understand what this might be, and design with that in mind.

The Effect of Unsatisfactory Results

Another aspect to consider, in light of this topic, is what happens when the system returns results that fail to live up to user expectations. We’ve seen that operational transparency has a positive impact on user perceptions of value. But what happens when—even though the system reveals significant effort to obtain the results—they fall short of what the user wanted?

An experiment designed to test for this found that the (positive) impact of transparency varied as a function of the outcome. Although users valued transparency more when results were favorable or useful, they actually valued it less when outcomes were unfavorable. These findings reveal an important boundary condition for the benefits of transparency. When an unsatisfactory result is returned, people blame the service for the failure. In other words, no amount of (system) effort can overcome people’s natural inclination to dislike systems that perform poorly.

Some Caveats

In light of this, it’s important to consider that there are a couple of important caveats when thinking about when to design for operational transparency:

In Closing…

In many contexts, the longer customers have to wait for service, the less satisfied they become. For this reason, management often assumes they should work towards reducing wait time as much as possible. But ultimately, this can be a very costly and difficult task.

We’ve also seen that increasing efficiency of service may actually have an unanticipated downside.

While it’s tempting to focus exclusively on objective dimensions like service wait time, which can be easily defined and measured, it’s worth considering how the design of the wait experience itself can affect subjective dimensions that drive perceptions of value – as well as customer willingness to pay, satisfaction, and repurchase intentions.

Designing for operational transparency can return a harvest of benefits—not only in terms of customer perception, but also in substantial cost savings.

This is why the design of user experiences is so important. It’s easy to confine the purpose of design to making a site aesthetically pleasing. But the real power of design lies in its ability to tackle tough business challenges in creative—and sometimes unintuitive—ways. Companies that recognize the power of design to solve business challenges already have a competitive edge in creating great customer experiences that are beneficial for all.


  1. Provide avenues for self-service where necessary that reduce the friction of user’s pain points
  2. Design for operational transparency by providing progress-UX that’s robust and meaningful
  3. Work on reducing wait time that users report as unsatisfactory in your user research

Interested in more of Colleen’s UX insights? Subscribe to the DT Blog and enjoy weekly design know-how delivered to your inbox, friction-free.

Or if you’re excited to learn more about the power of design, check out our Behind the Design exposé for Adventure.com. From the ground up we helped launch this amazing travel destination site that employs the support of beautiful imagery and complex filters to provide users with a delightful wait experience as they book their next adventure. Enjoy!