Wait Wait…Tell Me!

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Today there are thousands of vacant homes all throughout Detroit. The Motor City has been shrinking since the 1950s but many of these vacancies stem from a decade ago when the financial crisis devastated the city.

Angus Chen:
As I drove around, I had seen an abandoned home on almost every block.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Angus Chen, who we recently sent to Detroit.

Angus Chen:
Many of these houses are still in good enough condition for someone to fix up and turn into a home but a lot of them are damaged beyond repair. Without caretakers, their roofs sagged in and their foundations crumbled and their walls turned black from fire.

Roman Mars:
And so in 2014, Detroit started a citywide demolition program to take down the houses that couldn’t be fixed. The city estimated they had about 40,000 homes to demolish.

Angus Chen:
Orlando Bailey is a community organizer from the east side of Detroit and he says the program’s rollout was chaotic.

Orlando Bailey:
They were really building the plane as they fly it and I’m quoting a city official who said something like that at the time. (laughs)

Angus Chen:
Houses were coming down all over the city, but for a lot of residents that they couldn’t come down fast enough. Orlando says people in his neighborhood were pulling their hair out hoping that the house next door would get demolished sometime soon. What made it worse was they couldn’t get any information from the city explaining when it was going to happen.

Orlando Bailey:
It was an acute level of frustration, frustration with really just not being armed with the knowledge of how something that is affecting everybody in the city is working.

Angus Chen:
When the city struggled to provide information to residents, they would come to Orlando with questions.

Orlando Bailey:
I remembered my phone ringing off the hook all the time.

Angus Chen:
Can you state some of those questions?

Orlando Bailey:
There’s this house on my block that’s been vacant for years. Is it coming down? So if the house is torn down next to me, can I buy the lot? I don’t know if you can buy the lot yet.

Angus Chen:
I don’t know. I can’t really imagine how maddening it must have felt.

Orlando Bailey:
Being in limbo. It’s a tough place to be. It was a crazy time.

Angus Chen:
The residents of Orlando’s neighborhood were experiencing a lot of anxiety about the economic situation the city generally, and the fact that so many of the houses on their blocks were empty and falling apart, but the thing that was getting people to pick up the phone and call Orlando was the act of waiting itself.

Orlando Bailey:
The sentiment that I hear over and over again is, how long must I wait?

Angus Chen:
Waiting is something that we all do every day. We wait for our food to come and our operating systems to update. We wait for our friends to call and our crushes to text us back. Our experience of waiting and how we feel about it varies radically depending on the context. It turns out that design can completely change whether our five-minute wait goes reasonable or completely unbearable.

Roman Mars:
For the Detroit residents waiting for abandoned houses to come down, the experience was pretty unbearable. So, the city set out to design a solution for them. To do that, they turned to a body of research that offers insights into this strange psychology of waiting. The research didn’t come from studying city government. It came from studying the particular frustration that people feel when they’re waiting for a computer to load.

Xerox Ad:
Push a button and the words and images you see on the screen appear on paper.

Xerox Ad:
Oh, thank you. You know, but I think everybody on the routing list should see this.

Roman Mars:
In the early 1980s computers were just becoming popular in offices for the first time and companies like Xerox were making work faster.

Xerox Ad:
Push another button and the information is sent electronically, just similar units around the corner or around the world.

Roman Mars:
In 1981, Xerox came out with its latest, quickest top of the line machine, an office computer called the Xerox Star.

Jason Farman:
The Star was one of the first machines that allowed people to connect and share files and do things at a speed that they really hadn’t done before.

Angus Chen:
This is Jason Farman. He’s a professor at the University of Maryland and he wrote a book about waiting called “Delayed Response”. And he says that even though the Star was one of the fastest computers of its time, it didn’t feel fast.

Jason Farman:
Overwhelmingly, people felt that it was a slow machine. Overwhelmingly, the sentiment was that it took forever. It took forever to load. It took forever to exchange files.

Angus Chen:
That perception of slowness may have had something to do with the design of loading icons. These early computers like the Star where the first to use them. On the Star, the mouse cursor were turned into a static hourglass icon. Macintoshes from the same time had a wristwatch icon that was stuck on 9′ o clock. Every single time you saw the hourglass or the wristwatch, you knew you had to wait again.

Brad Myers:
So, you get the busy watch, but you don’t know if it’s actually making progress or not.

Angus Chen:
That’s Brad Myers. He’s a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He says that the problem with the watch was it gave you no sense of how long you would be waiting for.

Brad Myers:
It might finish soon. It might not finish at all. Remember you can’t use the computer for other things, so really the only option is to sit there and watch nothing happen or the cursor blink.

Angus Chen:
To me, that sounds terrible.

Brad Myers:
Exactly.

Roman Mars:
Eventually, computer programmers started animating loading icons to try to reassure the user that something was going on inside that mystery box. Apple introduced a spinning black and white pinwheel. Eventually, there were wristwatches with hands that moved and hourglasses with little falling pixels of sand. These new loading icons may have been more interesting to look at, but Jason Farman says they didn’t fix the underlying problem.

Jason Farman:
Here, I’m trying to use my time well, but I can’t control that because I’m waiting. Somebody is making me wait or a system is making me wait and I don’t know when it’s going to end. It is this deep feeling of powerlessness I think.

Angus Chen:
Around this time, Brad Myers had just finished his bachelor’s degree at MIT and he was working at a tech company. While he was struggling with these new loading icons, he remembered that older computers from the 1970s had a very simple way to let users know that the computer was working. Dots.

Brad Myers:
Not unusual for programs in the 70s to print out a dot on the screen every now and then, so you would know that it’s at least making progress.

Angus Chen:
The dots came at regular intervals, like one every second.

Brad Myers:
So, it would go dot… dot… dot.. right? And so then you’d say, “Oh well, must be making progress. I keep seeing dots.” Eventually, you might have a sense for, “Well, this is a fairly long program. I’m expecting three rows of dots, or this’ll be a whole screen full of dots.”

Angus Chen:
Myers says that having that little bit of information about the progress the computer was making made the experience of waiting much more bearable. So, he reasoned that new computers needed a way to let the user know how long something might take. A progress bar.

Roman Mars:
We’re all familiar with this. The bar fills up as the computer works showing how much of the task is completed.

Angus Chen:
Myers says the first progress bars were a huge improvement. Just by seeing how quickly the bar filled up, users could guess how long the computer would take to finish the job.

Brad Myers:
You can say, “Okay, well it’s going to take five minutes. I’ll go get a coffee.”

Angus Chen:
Myers started programming progress bars into everything he did. Then when he went back to graduate school to get his PhD, he actually studied progress bars and found that people really liked them. They made people less anxious.

Brad Myers:
Progress bars help remove the worry.

Angus Chen:
Myers published his findings in 1985 and people took notice. Progress bars started popping up everywhere.

Jason Farman:
People were so enthusiastic about this because they finally got some feedback in a way that this hourglass didn’t give them.

Roman Mars:
But there was one scenario where the progress bar failed – when the computer stalled right at the very end. Progress bars gave users an accurate depiction of how much a task had been completed at any given time. So, if the first 10% loaded in 10 seconds, then well you’d think, well the whole thing should be over in about 100 seconds. Except it didn’t always take 100 seconds. Sometimes the computer would slow down over some computational speed bump. The progress bar would be sailing along and stall at 99% and you’d end up feeling completely betrayed.

Jason Farman:
You leave the experience much more frustrated than you would if you just had this opaque buffering icon spinning in your browser.

Angus Chen:
That revealed something really key about the psychology of waiting, why things often feel slower than they really are. It’s all about our expectations.

Jason Farman:
This is true on our computers and it’s true at lines at Disneyland. You look at it, it tells you how long it’s going to take and you set an expectation. When you get to the front of the line faster than you thought you were going to or when that particular piece of software loads faster than you thought it was going to, you leave the encounter feeling positive.

Angus Chen:
That realization about expectations led designers to a new idea, a loading bar that had nothing to do with how much work the computer had done. Instead, it was designed just to make the wait feel better. It would always start off slow to set your expectations for a fairly long wait and then speed up at the end, so that the user ends up feeling pleasantly surprised.

Jason Farman:
So, that’s one way that designers have given people a sense of beating expectation and they leave the encounter feeling good about the experience. “Wow, that was fast.”

Angus Chen:
This front-loaded loading bar tricked you into feeling like you were waiting for less time than you actually were.

Roman Mars:
In the 21st century, that idea of trying to manipulate the user’s experience of time really took off, especially with big online retail companies whose profits depended on keeping customers on their website.

Jason Farman:
Amazon had done a study that showed that if customers on average are forced to wait a 10th of a second, they could lose up to 1% of their revenue. When you’ve got that many people feeling frustrated enough to leave your site because of the delays that are there, you’re just talking a massive amount of money.

Roman Mars:
Companies like Google and Amazon started pouring millions of dollars into speeding up their websites and engineering them so they would run faster.

Angus Chen:
As things got faster, we expected them to always be that fast. That made us notice more and more minute delays, and so people writing websites were basically locked into this constant race of trying to make those waits smaller and smaller or at least feel smaller and smaller.

Roman Mars:
But there were some companies that just couldn’t keep up with the Internet’s rapidly accelerating pace. Travel websites, for example, needed their customers to wait several seconds while they searched for tickets.

Angus Chen:
That might not sound long, but a few seconds can feel like an eternity online. For comparison, search engines like Google were loading results in less than a second.

Roman Mars:
But, one travel website designed a solution to waiting that would have impacts outside the digital world and would eventually find its way into the offices of the city government of Detroit.

Ryan Buell:
I came across this company, Kayak, which is an online travel search engine that I think many people will be very familiar with.

Angus Chen:
This is Ryan Buell, a professor at the Harvard Business School. He says that Kayak couldn’t avoid making its customers wait.

Ryan Buell:
They actually have to do a fresh query every time a customer wants to find a ticket, which meant that it was inevitable that Kayak would have to make its customers wait as all travel search engines do.

Angus Chen:
Kayak was trying to figure out what they could show their customers while they waited and Buell says that the solution they came up with completely changed the way he understood waiting.

Ryan Buell:
They just said, “Hey look, why don’t we just show them what we’re doing.”

Roman Mars:
Instead of a progress bar, Kayak designed an animation that showed the user not only what percentage of the job had been completed, but exactly what the search algorithm was doing as it was doing it.

Ryan Buell:
Now we’re searching United Airlines, now we’re searching American Airlines and you can watch the prices fall as tickets come in that have better rates. This was the first time that I had ever seen an organization really deliberately design a window into the operation.

Roman Mars:
This little animation gave the user something that none of the other loading designs could – radical transparency.

Ryan Buell:
When we make the process transparent to people, when we show people the work that’s going on behind the scenes, it completely changes the way that we think about the wait in general.

Angus Chen:
Instead of thinking of waiting as robbing you of your time, suddenly you are spending your time on something worthwhile.

Roman Mars:
In this case, users could see all the work that Kayak’s algorithm was doing, and they could imagine that if they tried to do all that work themselves and check every single one of those airlines on their own individual site, it would take forever.

Ryan Buell:
That causes them to appreciate and value the service more.

Angus Chen:
So, Buell began a series of experiments to test that idea. In one, he and his team created a fake travel search engine and had participants wait different amounts of time for their search results. In one scenario, they saw just a progress bar while they waited. In the other, they got a progress bar plus an animation that showed them what was happening behind the scenes. They got transparency.

Ryan Buell:
No matter how long people waited for service, they always perceive the service to be more valuable when it was operationally transparent.

Roman Mars:
In fact, people who waited 55 seconds with transparency were as satisfied as users who got instant results.

Ryan Buell:
Fifty-five seconds is an eternity on the internet. When we can see the hidden work that’s going on to serve us, it makes us less sensitive to the time that we’re spending waiting.

Angus Chen:
Kayak.com doesn’t look like this anymore, but Buell says he now sees examples of this kind of transparency everywhere.

Ryan Buell:
I mean, I noticed examples of this now all the time in my life, right? So anytime I take a Lyft or an Uber anywhere, you get to see where the driver is. Domino’s pizza tracker is one of my favorite examples of this. You can actually watch and you can see your pizza going through the process.

Angus Chen:
Buell found that radical transparency doesn’t just impact how people experience waiting on our computers or our cell phones, it can have interesting surprising psychological effects on how people wait in the real physical world.

Roman Mars:
For example, he conducted an experiment in a Harvard dining hall where he set up cameras so that students waiting for their food could see the chefs who were cooking it and vice versa. It turned out that seeing behind the scenes not only made the wait more tolerable, but the food tasted better.

Ryan Buell:
Now the customers tell us that the food is 22% better and the chefs are working 19% faster. I thought that’s weird.

Angus Chen:
It is kind of weird, but Buell thinks that there’s something really important going on. There are so many instances where we wait and think, “What the hell is happening?” but with this kind of transparency, we see people’s efforts and we appreciate them more. We see why we’re waiting and waiting becomes less of a chore.

Roman Mars:
That’s true whether you’re waiting for someone to cook you a meal or for a website to load or for a city government to come and knock down the abandoned house next door.

Angus Chen:
Ryan Buell had been publishing his research on transparency for a few years when it found its way into the hands of a man named Brian Farkas. Farkas is the Director of Special Projects at the Detroit Building Authority, the agency responsible for managing the city’s demolition program. He started the job in 2014 and he says that at the time, residents were constantly calling the city with the same question, how long am I going to have to wait for the city to demolish this abandoned home on my block?

Brian Farkas:
When is this burnt-out house coming down? When is this house coming down? It’s been there for five years. And in the early days, we didn’t have the information to be able to respond to them.

Angus Chen:
Farkas’s job was to communicate with the public and answer these questions except there was no system to actually get that information to people and no way to explain why things were taking so long. He says Detroit residents would get really upset on the phone and it quickly became a burden for his department.

Brian Farkas:
I mean, the hours that were spent in just responding to basic calls like that was extremely tough and extremely labor intensive.

Angus Chen:
Then one day Farkas stumbled upon Ryan Buell’s research about transparency. He thought, “We need something like this for Detroit.”

Roman Mars:
So, he wrote Buell an email and Buell immediately wrote back.

Brian Farkas:
The next day he responded saying he grew up just outside of Flint and was very interested in this process. He’s at a sense been the mentor of myself and this program.

Angus Chen:
With Buell’s mentorship, Farkas began working on something he calls the “Neighborhood Improvement Tracker”.

Roman Mars:
It would be a window into all the work that was going into the city’s demolition program and a way for people to track which houses were going to come down and when.

Angus Chen:
One of the first people he reached out to was Orlando Bailey, the community organizer from the beginning of a story. He wanted Orlando to help him test the tracker and make sure that it was working.

Orlando Bailey:
So my reaction was one of joy, because we would finally have something that can track things in realtime where I can, something that was readily accessible for when my phone rang and it rang a lot back then, I can go to and have answers.

Angus Chen:
Farkas showed up to community meetings every month to answer people’s questions and show mock ups of the Neighborhood Improvement Tracker. People gave him feedback.

Orlando Bailey:
The residents there were all for it and begin to tell Farkas, “This is what needs to be on the tracker.”

Angus Chen:
Orlando says it felt like the city was finally being honest with them and showing that they were committed to making the demolition program transparent.

Roman Mars:
The tracker launched in 2016. It’s basically an interactive map of Detroit. All over the map are different colored pins that show houses that are scheduled to be demolished.

Brian Farkas:
You can type in your address and the map zooms into your house and you can turn on what are the completed demolitions, what are the contracted demolitions, what are the planned demolitions.

Roman Mars:
For demos that have already been contracted, the tracker shows an estimate for when that house will come down. If a date hasn’t been set yet, it will give other information.

Brian Farkas:
You can see where are the side lots for sale, where are homes being sold, where are building permits being pulled.

Roman Mars:
Detroiters who don’t have internet access can get all the same information by texting a phone number.

Angus Chen:
Orlando says the tracker didn’t always give people the answer they were hoping for, but it was a relief just to have any information at all.

Orlando Bailey:
Whether they like the answer or not, they had the answer. So, it was like, “Oh, well. All right, thanks.”

Angus Chen:
I spoke with one resident named Barb Matney. Barb is a lifelong Detroiter who stayed through all of the foreclosures. We met outside her house. Except for a set of wind chimes, it’s quiet in her neighborhood.

Barb Matney:
God, there’s a lot of pride in Detroit. I think all in all, if your hearts here, it’s always going to be here. I mean this is always home. It’s just always going to be home.

Angus Chen:
It must have been really difficult to see Detroit go through some of those changes over the last few decades.

Barb Matney:
Yeah. It’s almost like it happened overnight. It’s like we woke up one day and opened up our blinds and all this devastation and empty houses is what we saw.

Angus Chen:
Barb had a vacant house next door that couldn’t be fixed. She used to mow the house’s lawn while she waited for the demolition. Before the tracker went live, it felt like the house would never come down.

Barb Matney:
Yeah. After you see it sitting there in the same condition and falling in for two years, you seem to think sometimes that you’re just… it’s never going to go away. It’ll go away the day that it falls in on itself. Like I said, things aren’t really like that anymore.

Angus Chen:
With the tracker, Barb says those feelings changed because she could see the demolition program progressing.

Barb Matney:
It’s like, “Oh finally.”

Angus Chen:
Yeah.

Barb Matney:
Yeah, it is. It’s a good feeling, a big sigh of relief because it’s going to be soon. Then the day that they show up, you’re like throwing a fiesta. You’ve got the balloons and party poppers and you’re out here going live, “Oh, it’s finally happening.”

Angus Chen:
Occasionally, Barb says she runs into problems that the tracker can’t explain. The cause for delays don’t always show up, for example, but she says she’s been able to call the city and get that information and it’s been easier to get answers from them ever since the tracker went live.

Barb Matney:
I can look in there myself or I can just call our district manager and within a short period of time, she usually gets back with me and lets me know what’s going on with it.

Angus Chen:
Knowing what’s going on can be really powerful. Knowing when the abandoned house in her neighborhood was going to be demolished allowed Barb and her neighbors to make plans for what to do with that land. When the house finally came down, Barb bought that lot and built a community garden.

Barb Matney:
So, now we currently have over 40 raised beds. We have a solar greenhouse and then back over here is an orchard. Yeah, this is a great place to be.

Angus Chen:
Yeah. It’s a beautiful garden. It really, really is.

Roman Mars:
Detroit’s demolition program hasn’t been perfect. Lots of people wanted demolitions to happen faster and there’ve also been concerns that the program has moved too quickly and caused environmental contamination. Some people felt like the program wasn’t prioritizing the right houses.

Angus Chen:
A lot of people I talked to just don’t trust the city. While the tracker certainly isn’t going to fix everything, Ryan Buell says it’s a good first step towards building a better, more transparent dynamic between the city government and it’s residents.

Ryan Buell:
I have to believe the city is better off for having made that decision and having said, we’re going to make this commitment to be transparent with residents. By revealing the progress and revealing the hidden work that’s going on, perhaps that will give people the confidence that they need to also invest in homes, in their properties and trying to help bring the city back to life.

Angus Chen:
Transparency can be messy. Sometimes it can reveal mistakes in the process that make you feel frustrated, but Buell says that radical transparency also means giving space for constructive feedback and dialogue.

Ryan Buell:
Right. We’re all in this thing together and the provision of transparency just ensures that we all have access to that information. If we have access to that information, then we have the opportunity to engage in the process. If we can do that, then we get to better places than we can without.

Roman Mars:
Buell hopes that others can learn from Detroit, Kayak and design little windows into the processes that are so often opaque to the people who depend on them, because we all depend on companies and governments and other institutions just to live our lives every day. We’re all waiting for something.

Credits

Production

Reporter Angus Chen spoke with Brad Myers, professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University; Ryan Buell, Associate Professor of Service Management at the Harvard Business School; Jason Farman, Associate Professor at University of Maryland and author of Delayed Response; Orlando Bailey, East Side Community; Barb Matney, Detroit Resident; Brian Farkas, Detroit Building Authority Special Projects Director; Brenda Butler, Detroit Resident. Special thanks to Erica Raleigh, Director at Data Driven Detroit. This episode was edited by Emmett Fitzgerald.

Comments (13)

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  1. Armin

    Interesting. Did you listen to the Crimetown Podcast about Detroit and its many corrupt politicians? In the last episode of the season, they also talk about the demolition project and how it is looking like once again there was some collusion and kickbacks for contractors. Because as they said in the podcast as well: “that’s a lot of demolitions”.

    https://www.crimetownshow.com/episodes-detroit/2019/03/11/s2e19

  2. Scott Archer

    I thought about kayak and how people enjoyed the transparency of the loading screen. I wondered why more websites did not utilize such transparency, and then it hit me: who wants to see a loading screen on their website showing that you’re waiting for your content because “waiting for ads to load.”?

  3. Interesting that you trace the explanatory loading bar back to Kayak as the origin. I’m fairly sure that it had become common in videogames years earlier than that. I don’t have a good enough memory of 1990s videogames to name a specific example, though, so I will just throw that out there and hope someone else can back me up.

    1. Adam

      Sim City 2000 was one. When you generated a new map, it showed what it was doing, complete with the famous “reticulating splines” audio clip.

  4. Adam

    I’m surprised there’s no mention of the regression of the progress bar in Windows. It has what looks like a progress bar at first glance; however, it is actually a simple animation that shows a colored bar move from left to right on the screen (fairly quickly), only to repeat itself, with no actual indication of progress.

    1. Rob Fuller

      Yes, and also surprised that nobody mentioned the famous “Microsoft minutes”, when a process would routinely take longer (and sometimes much longer) than the number of minutes promised on the screen. It would have been interesting to hear something in this episode about the counter-examples – why companies like Microsoft have not learned the lessons discussed here.

    2. when i heard this part of the cast, i immediately thought of the jokes as part of the loading screen for (EverQuest.)[https://www.giantbomb.com/humorous-loading-screen-messages/3015-8655/]

  5. Well this is only peripherally related, but it definitely relates to waiting (and effective responses). I’ve often reflected on how through the ‘80’s, and into the 90’s the airline-using public was constantly outraged by the poor on-time performance of airlines. Everyone was super frustrated and airlines had horrible approval ratings.

    Then it all changed when someone somewhere had the brilliant idea to just include typical delays in flight times. Now flights are much more rarely late (it seems), and even delays at departure can result in flights that are early by a few minutes.
    And often flights land early(!)
    Not a solution to flight delays but a simple, brilliant solution to a perception problem. I always thought it would be interesting to find the person who figured that out.

  6. John Kroll

    Don’t some sites use phony, elaborate progress bars these days? If you search for a phone number or a person’s name, you get lots of links to sites that display long (animated gifs?) listing all sorts of databases they’re allegedly searching … only to end up a a screen that offers minimal info but urges you to pay for more. I have always assumed these things rely on a combo of the pretense of intensive work behind the scenes with the sunk costs fallacy — I’ve put in so much time waiting, I should pay rather than have to wait all over again somewhere else. Maybe I’m too cynical, but these days when I see a progress bar accompanied by explanations ala kayak, whether online or in an app, I automatically assume it’s fake.

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