No one likes the idea of waiting—but a reception area or waiting room is an integral feature for many businesses. Doctor’s offices, large corporations, hotels, mechanics, and restaurants may all need to make their customers wait for service.
For example, the most recent Vitals Wait Time Report shows that the average time that patients spend in the doctor’s waiting room is about 18 minutes. This same report also shows that there is a direct, negative correlation between wait times and patient satisfaction. The longer the wait, the less satisfied the patient.
This can be a losing proposition for businesses that have to incorporate wait time into their business model, knowing that customer satisfaction decreases with every passing minute. However, with a thoughtful layout and design, it’s possible to transform the waiting area from a necessary evil into a prime opportunity for customer engagement. Here’s how.
Understanding the Psychology Behind Waiting Rooms
Before we dive right into tips and suggestions for designing a more welcoming and engaging reception area, it’s a good idea to understand a little bit about why customers hate to wait and how they perceive wait time. Knowing both of these factors will help you understand what you can do to make their experience more enjoyable and boost your customer satisfaction.
In general, there are four basic principles that explain how wait time affects your customers:
1. The Perception is Greater Than the Reality.
People are naturally impatient. Study after study has shown that customers overestimate the time that they spend waiting by as much as 36 percent. That can be bad news for businesses that regularly require wait time—even with a perfect reception area design and layout, your customers are going to think they’re waiting for longer than they actually are.
Fortunately, there’s a simple solution to this phenomenon: Setting the correct expectation. Decades ago, Harvard Business School researchers came up with a formula to predict customer satisfaction. S = P – E (Satisfaction equals Perception minus Expectation). This formula has been proven to hold true for waiting psychology as well. When customers’ perceived wait time matches their expected wait time, they are happier. So, it’s important not to underestimate their wait.
2. Uncertainty Adds to Wait Time Stress.
Have you ever noticed that the drive to an unfamiliar location always feels so much longer than the drive back? That’s because our brains are wired to respond to uncertainty with stress. Similarly, studies have routinely shown that customers react more favorably to a well-explained 30-minute wait than an uncertain and unexplained 20-minute wait. It’s not rational, but it’s true.
This means that setting the expectation can be a powerful tool for improving your customers’ waiting room experience. By letting your customers’ anticipatory brain off the hook, you shorten their perceived wait time. So, take a cue from amusement park lines and let your customers know how long they’ll be waiting. Something as easy as training your receptionist to give a wait time or displaying a digital sign-in at the doctor’s office can greatly reduce wait time stress and improve customer satisfaction.
3. Time Flies When You’re Having Fun. Or at Least Occupied.
The infamous Houston Airport example illustrates this point perfectly. The airport was dealing with numerous complaints about the time it took passengers to get their bags at baggage claim. At first, the airport responded by hiring more baggage handlers and dropped the wait time to 8 minutes, which the industry considers a reasonable wait time for a mid-sized airport baggage claim. But the complaints didn’t stop. Then, the airport executives analyzed their layout and decided to move the baggage claim further away from the arrivals gate. The wait time didn’t change, but when passengers had to walk further the complaints dropped to zero.
As you’re considering the best waiting room design for your office, it’s important to think about including distractions and tasks for your customers. A few outdated magazines or a TV playing soap opera reruns in the corner may have counted for something two decades ago, but today’s customers expect more. It may be wise to design your waiting room around several different kinds of activities or stations so customers can choose their waiting experience. Perhaps some customers want to fix themselves a coffee at your refreshment stand while others would like to charge their laptop and do some work at a well-designed technology station. Designing a waiting room that can accommodate both of these customers (and give them a choice) will greatly increase their satisfaction.
4. Personalized Service or Extra Touches are Worth the Wait.
Another way to understand waiting room psychology is to look at situations where customers believe that the product or service is worth the wait. In other words, what are people willing to wait for? Typically, customers are willing to wait for products or services they believe are unique, personalized, or carefully-crafted. It’s why customers are willing to wait for 15 minutes for a “scratch-made” burger at a local joint but expect to get out of the McDonald’s Drive-Thru in under 3 minutes.
Applying this knowledge to your waiting room experience can go a long way toward satisfying your customers. For example, if you run a pediatrician’s office, why not rethink the grubby Legos that other sick kids have been playing with? Instead, create a custom, interactive video demo that introduces your young patients to their doctor. Or, use an interactive quiz to ask patients about their favorite colors, foods, animals and superheroes and have your assistants call patients back by their answers: “I’m looking for Jake, the kid who loves hot dogs and Spiderman.” The kids, and their parents, will appreciate the personalization and are more likely to feel the value they received matches the wait time.
7 Ways to Ensure the Ideal Waiting Room Layout and Design
Understanding how your customers experience wait time makes the process of designing your reception area much easier. Whether you’re starting from square one in a brand new building or redesigning an existing space, keeping the customer experience at the forefront will help guide your decisions.
Here are 7 considerations for companies planning to design a waiting room around their customers’ needs:
1. Analyze Your Existing Waiting Room and Observe Customers.
If you are going to redesign your reception area or waiting room, you should begin by fully analyzing your current layout and design. You should also look at the ways your current customers interact with the space and any front desk personnel. Do they seem impatient? Bored? Uncomfortable? Do the customers seem to understand why they’re waiting and what they’re waiting for? Keep careful track of these and other questions you create for a few weeks or even months before you begin your redesign.
2. Choose Your Space Wisely.
How much space to dedicate to your waiting room is, understandably, one of the greatest concerns for business owners. If you don’t calculate your waiting area space requirements correctly, you could end up with customers who are forced to stand or feel cramped. On the other end of the spectrum, you could overestimate your needs and have an underused reception area when your team could really use the space. Your reception area should look attractive and professional while accommodating all guests comfortably.
A good standard to go by is to calculate 20 sq ft per person for small seats and 30 to 35 sq ft per person for lounge-style seating. Most waiting areas provide a mix of seating options for greater accessibility (more on this below). Many also include tables, charging stations, water fountains or refreshment areas, a reception desk, and even retail. Understanding these baseline numbers for seating can help your planning, though. Calculate a minimum and maximum for customers in the waiting room and go from there. You will also need to choose a space and a layout that allows for a clear, easy flow of traffic without bottlenecks.
3. Design for Comfort. But Not Too Much Comfort.
Comfortable seating is one of the main considerations for any reception area. The best way to ensure comfort is to test out the seating for yourself before purchasing. Would you want to spend 15-20 minutes in that chair? If not, then your customers don’t either! It may seem counterintuitive, but your reception area design could backfire on you if it looks too comfortable. Think about it this way. What do you think when you see a deep, plush couch? That you’re going to sink into it and not get up for a while? Customers feel the same way. Unless you’re operating a spa or hotel, seating that looks too comfortable and plush makes customers worry that they’re in for a long wait.
4. Design for Accessibility.
This may be the most important design consideration. You want your waiting area to feel welcoming and accommodate the broadest possible range of customers. Truly, there’s so much to think about here that we could write a separate blog post just on this topic. But for starters, think about:
Provide an accessible seating space. An accessible seating space is simply an empty area alongside your seating where people can put wheelchairs, assistive devices, or service animals without encumbering themselves or disrupting the flow of traffic. Depending on the size of your waiting area, it may be a good idea to include several of these spaces throughout your layout. Generally, it’s most helpful for accessible seating spaces to be located against a wall.
Provide a good mix of seating types. Provide chairs with armrests so older customers can get in and out easily, chairs without armrests so people can transfer from a wheelchair or other mobility device into the seat, and chairs with broader seats and higher weight limits to accommodate all body types.
Provide a good mix of seating locations. Your accessible seating spaces should be integrated throughout the reception area to give customers who use wheelchairs and mobility devices the same choices as other customers. It’s a good idea to provide companion seating next to an accessible space and at least one area where two wheelchairs can fit side-by-side. Again, this seating should be included in the general layout of your waiting room. The worst thing to do is segregate people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices into one area.
Provide an accessible path. Think about how your customers will move through the space. Providing a clear path that will accommodate all customers creates a better overall experience.
5. Use Colors and Lighting to Set the Mood.
If the layout and furnishings are the foundation of an engaging reception area, the colors, lighting, and decor set the tone. Anyone who’s sat in a drab, gray doctor’s office under harsh lighting knows just how miserable it can be. Choose calm, soothing, rich colors such as blues, purples, and greens, which are colors that also denote honesty and decisiveness. While you do want to bring your company’s brand into the space, you should avoid reds, yellows, and oranges as these colors feel aggressive and anxiety-inducing when painted on a wall. If these colors work for your brand but not for your waiting room, soften the look or warm it up. Add a touch of blue to your fire-engine red to lean it toward maroon. Soften your bright yellow into dandelion or goldenrod.
For lighting, choose natural light whenever possible as windows will connect your space to the outside world. Use brighter lighting to show off displayed items and create a sense of professionalism. Warm, low lighting, on the other hand, creates a more cozy atmosphere. Whatever you do, avoid harsh, artificial lighting in your waiting area. For decor, think about greenery and water features. Even fresh-cut flowers on the reception desk or a small tabletop water feature can improve your customer experience by promoting calming feelings.
6. Plan for Technology.
Ideally, your design should incorporate reading materials, games, interactive digital signage, televisions, refreshment stations, or other ways for your customers to pass their time. However, in reality, most customers today carry their own entertainment with them. Impress them with thoughtful touches, like a charging station for their devices or a laptop bar where they can easily send a couple emails while they wait.
7. Make the Waiting Room More Interactive.
Remember what we said about customers being happier about their wait if they are occupied and feel they are getting personalized service? Using interactive, digital signage is a powerful way to engage your customers from the moment they enter your building. Preload an interactive map of the offices so they can check where they’re going, encourage digital check-in, display wait times, create personalized entertainment, or display other useful customer information. Interactive digital signage is quick to update, versatile, and endlessly customizable.
If you follow these 7 suggestions, you’ll be well on your way to designing a welcoming waiting area—but your job isn’t done yet. There are hundreds of ways to make your waiting room better and personalize the experience. The real judges of your effectiveness are the customers themselves. So, pay attention to which features they use and which features they don’t. Pay attention to any common requests or complaints. And then continue to adjust and improve your waiting room as you are able.