03 August 2009

The misery of queuing...and Grice

Don Norman's paper, The Psychology of Waiting Lines, details the techniques that organisations use to keep customers sweet while they queue. Typically they play to our emotions, making the queuing itself a pleasant experience (à la Disney), approaching people who seem particularly wound up before their emotion spreads to others (again, Disney), creating the sense of a fast moving queue (one line, several service desks), winding the queue so it's hard for us to assess its length (hmm, this one doesn't seem convincing to me, at least as played out at Heathrow security).

So many of these are techniques are unavailable in phone queuing, where emotions are usually high to start with (see Jeff Jarvis's cranky account of his complaint to Cablevision). Vivaldi, interspersed with messages telling me I'm a valued customer, do not enhance my half hour wait. Knowing my place in the queue only helps if I know how fast it is moving. Maybe better triage, based on the caller's emotional state might help...'if you are swearing now, press 1' etc. This would be rather like the airport triage Norman describes with blue, red and black 'runs' according to type/time pressure of passenger.

As an aside, this reminded me of the 'linguists' exam question':

A crowded flight is cancelled, and a frazzled agent must rebook a long line of inconvenienced travelers by herself. Suddenly, an angry passenger pushes to the front and demands to be on the next flight, first class.

The agent replies, "I'm sorry, sir. I'll be happy to try to help you, but I've got to help these folks first."

The passenger screams, "Do you have ANY idea who I am?"

The gate agent grabs her public address microphone, "May I have your attention, please? We have a passenger here WHO DOES NOT KNOW WHO HE IS. If anyone can help him find his identity, please come to gate 17."

Exam question: Explain this joke in terms of the theories of J.L. Austin and H.P. Grice.

[Norman paper via Putting People First]

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