Modernizing the Consumer Wait Experience

Article by Brian Roderman, FISDA and Luke Jordan, ISDA.
Originally published in INNOVATION.


Creating new experiences is a major focus on innovation today. Brands are pushing to connect to consumers in new ways through holistic ecosystems that span a variety of engagement points. It is a push beyond traditional products and services to create deeper, more meaningful connections.

But what does that really mean? What does innovating for experiences look like? For example, think about the experience of your favorite restaurant. Imagine going with friends on a busy weekend. It’s lively, filled with people laughing and talking with good music in the background. Someone walks by with a plate of food that gets you even hungrier while you picture what you’re about to eat. Maybe you get a cold drink while you catch up with your friends before finally digging into that delicious meal. In short, it’s a full experience, one that engages all your senses. That’s what we’re trying to capture through experience innovation. It’s pushing the thinking beyond any one product or touchpoint. The question is, how can you design the experience to make it even better?

Innovating the Experience of Waiting

In our practice, experience innovation often starts with uncovering and analyzing pain points, the places where someone’s experience is not so pleasant. In the restaurant sample, there’s a big one: the waiting. When you’re out with your friends and family, you want to put your energy and attention on them, rather than concentrating on the wait time. We studied this through a collaboration between our firm, IN2 Innovation, and the guest experience technology company LRS. Our team mapped people’s waiting experience in a wide spectrum of places: hospitals and healthcare, logistics companies, entertainment, education and of course, at restaurants.¬†

Let’s break down the wait time. We find this holds true in most instances where you have to wait, especially when food is involved. The best-case scenario: Your wait time flies by. Suddenly, it’s your turn and you barely thought about how long you had been waiting because you were busy having fun with those around you. The worst-case scenario, on the other hand, is that all you do is think about it. You feel every second drag by, and your attention fully focuses on how long it is taking, on every agonizing moment that crawls by. It’s no fun, until you finally get your turn. Obviously, the better overall experience is the blink-and-it’s-over wait. So how can a restaurant help foster that? One way is through clear communication. There are a few systems a restaurant might use for communicating to waiting guests. You can take a number, they can call your name, they could send a text to your phone or they can give you a pager.

Taking a Number

Through our research, we discovered that taking a number is not so great. Not only does it feel relatively impersonal (and remind people of the DMV) we observed something interesting. Every time a number is called, almost everyone’s attention goes there. The number calling dominates the waiting process. It adds noise to the system, which disrupts the flow of conversation – and calls attention to the wait.

Calling Your Name

Calling out people’s names has a similar effect. Who did they just call? Was that us? It becomes a huge part of people’s focus. The tendency is to tune in to the names, which means tuning out friends and family.

Sending a Text

An easy option, then, would be for the restaurant to send you a text. Right? Today this is where most people’s minds go. Everyone has a phone, and we get text notifications every day. You’d have a lot more freedom to roam at will. Interestingly, this is an example where easy does not equate to simple. There are some obvious barriers – low battery, dropped texts, sharing your number with a stranger – but looking deeper, there is an added psychological barrier as well. Consider your phone. You use it for texts, emails, photos, sports scores, games, social media, maybe even phone calls. It is incredibly easy to check for a text and find yourself browsing the internet. And because we are programmed to use the phone for all these simple tasks, it is not such a simple device. Using it to communicate about waiting can be the easiest way to check out, rather than tuning in to those around you.

Just having a phone out can be intrusive, even if it’s off. There is an implied threat that you’re just one button click or notification away from disengagement. And when one person does it, so does the next, and too often, the whole group winds up on their phones. We see this over and over. It’s certainly OK to use your phone, if you so choose – but better if the restaurant’s system allows you the option to stay unplugged.

Using a Pager

This brings us to the pager. The concept has been around for a while, but even in our connected world, it holds up. The reason is that the pager is simple. It has one job: Someone gives this device to you, and when it goes off, you give it back in exchange for a table, a food order, your prescription, your turn at go-carts, etc. The pager serves as an (almost literal) handshake that says, “We’ve got you. You’re important, you’re in the system, and you’re OK to get back to your friends.” You can hold it or put it on the table for everyone to see, and all you do is¬†respond when it lights up and buzzes. In other words, the pager simplifies the interaction so you can get back to your friends and family.

All this has a lot to do with a concept called cognitive load. If something is simple and straightforward, you don’t tend to put too much thought into it at all. But the more complicated it gets, the more you keep having to check in. This can make a wait time feel longer and more stressful because your attention is on that and not a lot else. That’s a lot closer to the worst-case scenario we mentioned before.

The Service Side

There is another perspective at play here: the restaurant’s. It owns the overall experience from the moment you walk in the door. The pager can help the restaurant deliver in a few ways. Notably, when you give someone a pager, they are less likely to leave. It greatly increases the changes the person will actually stay through the wait. The pager acts like a sort of tether. The relatively small emotional hurdle – actively returning a pager and removing their name from the list – keeps significantly more people in or near the restaurant. On the other hand, there is no accountability for just walking away if you don’t have to give something back.

This is good for a couple of reasons. First, obviously the restaurant would like to serve as many people as possible – this is how it makes its money. But keeping a consistent waiting list also helps the guests. The whole process runs more smoothly. Trying to seat people who have already left causes a break in the flow. That downtime can lead to longer or less predictable wait times. With the pager itself, there is also a great deal of activity behind the scenes to smooth out the process. The pager system creates data on actual behaviors. Restaurants can use this information to optimize their staff and procedures to streamline their process. When you’re handed a pager, you probably don’t think about what is happening in the background – which again, is one of the keys to helping you have a better night out.

Bringing It All Together

In this case, the pager because the physical embodiment of the waiting process. It is where the system for managing the wait becomes tangible. This context helped our team create a new pager system with LRS. From a design standpoint, a modernized experience should reinforce that we’ve-got-you feeling while aesthetically blending into the restaurant’s ambience. It’s all about providing clear communication in a simple, comfortable interaction with a look and feel that is relevant today.

The iconic Dallas-based restaurant Mi Dia from Scratch offers an amazing blend of flavor and atmosphere from start to finish. Here’s what their manager, Bryce Miller, had to say when they implemented this new pager system: “[The system] helps us to streamline the front of the house. We give a guest pager and they can go get a margarita with their friends. They kick back and relax, and it is easy to just buzz them when we’re ready to seat them at their table.”

True User Experience

From our perspective, creating a true user experience means finding new ways to reduce complexity and enable moments of delight. You can deliver this experience as a product or a service through digital or physical touchpoints. And striving to balance all of those, you elevate something as seemingly simple as a pager beyond the product itself. The fact is, a lot of time people will barely notice. And they shouldn’t have to; it’s not their problem. Often, that is the best way to know when you get it right – the user can simply sit back and enjoy a great night out. That’s what experience innovation is all about.

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