A Human Queue

We’ve all experienced systems that manage our place in a queue. Perhaps you’re exchanging a defective product and are asked to “take a number,” or call your bank and are told to “hold for our next representative,” or ask for help with an app and receive an email that says “your support request number is #1067239.”

Whatever the case, it’s evident you’re not the only one there. In order to apportion the attention of the small group of people providing support to the (invariably larger) group of people needing it, the folks in charge of the experience establish systems to allow for an orderly progression. Usually, it’s on a first come, first served basis — but not always. Some requests may require specialized knowledge and may be held longer or be routed to a different department.

As the person waiting in “line,” these backend machinations aren’t visible to you. All you know is you’ve got a number, so your request should eventually be attended to. How long do you have to wait? Some systems attempt to let you know, but many don’t. Knowing that yours is request number 1,067,239 doesn’t necessarily mean anything to you. Are they currently serving request number 1,067,238? Do requests progress in sequence, or are they parallel? How long does the average request take? You don’t know. You’re not told the number so you’ll know how long you’ve got to wait, but in case you need to interact with another agent of the system in the future.

Many of these systems work quite well. But knowing that your request is the 1067239th in the system doesn’t speak to your humanity. Rather, it makes it clear that you’re now part of a machine that manages the queue. You also know nothing about the other people waiting alongside you. Who are they? What’s their demeanor? Are their needs and expectations being met? Is there anything you could learn from their interactions that could help you with yours? You have no way of knowing. The whole thing is efficient but impersonal.

Compare this with an extraordinary experience I had yesterday waiting in a more human queue. I went to my local post office around lunchtime to mail a book to my brother. Mid-day is usually a busy time for the post office, and there was a line of people waiting to be served. It was also a relatively small post office; there were only two agents serving customers. So I had a wait ahead of me; I could tell so because I could see how many people were ahead of me. After a while, I could also estimate how long each person was taking, more or less.

While I was waiting, I learned a lot about my fellow customers and about the post office agents who were serving us. There was a sharply-dressed lady at the counter trying to mail a bundle of documents. She seemed a bit flustered, perhaps because she’d filled out the wrong form. The agent gently explained this, gave her a copy of the correct form, and asked her to step aside to one of the side tables to complete it.

Besides her bundle of documents, the lady had lots of other things in her hands: paper slips, a wallet, a pen, a smartphone. She was trying to balance all of it, and inadvertently kept dropping the slips to the floor. The person behind her in the queue — a young man with sleeve tattoos and an askew baseball cap — politely and quietly picked up the slips and handed them to her. She thanked him with a smile and a nod.

When she was done filling out the new form, the post office agent gently allowed her to go back to the front of the queue. This would extend the wait for the rest of us, but I believe all of us in the line understood the fairness in this. The lady hadn’t yet completed her transaction; she’d merely been sidetracked (literally) because she’d made a mistake. If the same happened to me when it was my turn, I’d also appreciate going back to the front of the queue rather than having to start over.

I saw this process repeated with another patron before my turn came up. The post office agent had found the way to strike a balance between efficiency — she was serving other customers while the original person in line filled out their new forms — while also creating a good experience for the people who’d messed up. She did this by bending the rules a little bit; the rest of us quietly (and approvingly) acquiesced to her authority as an agent of the organization.

Her colleague in the next station was also helping manage the queue in this “analog” manner. But on top of this, he was also greeting the people who came into the post office. Some were clearly repeat customers; he called them by name, asked about their families, their work. One patron was sending a care package to her best friend, who’d moved overseas. She requested extra forms because she was planning to repeat the process several times over the next year. “Please give me five,” she said. He responded immediately with a smile, “… thousand?” Several of us chuckled. He was very gregarious and lifted the energy of the room.

I had to wait, but it wasn’t boring; I didn’t feel like I was in a dumb machine. Instead, I felt I was in a human space. There, I saw people being efficient, people messing up, people bending the rules, people exercising patience, people brought back from the edge of frustration by a kind gesture. I saw people being reasonable. I saw civility. Random strangers with a shared purpose, working together to make it happen. It made me wonder: how might we design information environments that are more like this? Environments that are less rigid and impersonal, that foster social bonds — even if things take a bit longer?