Essays & Articles


The Psychology of Waiting Lines

Waiting is an inescapable part of life, but that doesn’t mean we enjoy it. But if the lines are truly inescapable, what can be done to make them less painful? Although there is a good deal of practical knowledge, usually known within the heads of corporate managers, very little has been published about the topic. One paper provides the classic treatment: David Maister’s The Psychology of Waiting Lines (1985). Maister suggested several principles for increasing the pleasantness of waiting. Although his paper provides an excellent start, it was published in 1985 and there have been considerable advances in our knowledge since then.

In the PDF file, The Psychology of Waiting Lines, I bring the study of waiting lines up to date, following the spirit of Maister’s original publication, but with considerable revision in light of modern findings. I suggest eight design principles, starting with “emotions dominate” and ending with the principle that “the memory of an event is more important than the experience.” Examples of design solutions include double buffering, providing clear conceptual models of the events with continual feedback, providing positive memories and even why one might deliberately induce waits. These principles apply to all services, not just waiting in lines. Details will vary from situation to situation, industry to industry, but the fundamentals are, in truth, the fundamentals of sociable design for waiting lines, for products, and for service.

Revision HistoryThe current version is dated August 21, 2008. Additions to the first-posted version include sections on Variations of basic waiting lines, including triage, categorization of needs, and self-selection of queues. Also a section on “Deliberate Chaos.”

July, 2009.

The MIT Sloan Management Review version of the paper on waiting lines is finally out:

The URL (above) only gives a short excerpt: you have to subscribe (or pay) to get the entire article. But if you write me, I’ll send you a copy. Or you can simply look at the original version that spawned the paper in the PDF file, “The Psychology of Waiting Lines, The original is better in the amount of detail and formal analyses, worse in the rough draft and inelegance of the writing as well as a lack of examples which I added for SMR.

The PDF version is an excerpt from a draft chapter entitled “Sociable Design” for a new book. Comments are welcomed. Send them to don at

Maister, D. (1985). The Psychology of Waiting Lines. In J. A. Czepiel, M. R. Solomon & C. F. Surprenant (Eds.), The Service encounter: managing employee/customer interaction in service businesses. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, Lexington Books.

Norman, D. A. (2009). Designing waits that work.MIT Sloan Management Review, 50(4), 23-28.