Blinking lights: a lesson in usability that still applies today

Way back in engineering school my partner and I were putting together a circuit board when our instructor came by to look at our project. “You need a flashing LED on your board,” he said. We asked why and he added “you’ll need to blink it to indicate that the board is doing something. It actually doesn’t matter what it’s doing, but a blinking light tells us it’s doing something!” This may have been my first lesson in usability though I certainly did not recognize it as such as such at the time.

Flash forward a few years to this morning and I’m sitting in front of my computer trying to buy tickets to a Taylor Swift concert. Tickets go on sale at 10am on Ticketmaster, and I’m logged in with my credit card on file, ready to buy. I choose: give me the best you’ve got, and wait. And wait. And wait. And wait some more.

Ticketmaster's random countdown timer.

Ticketmaster’s random countdown timer.

There’s a counter on the site. It says, initially, that my wait time is 10 minutes. After counting down the minutes to 3, it notifies me that my wait time is now 15 minutes. After counting that down to 8 minutes, it pops up to 15 minutes again, and so on, for almost an hour. Note the warning below the timer that says: “If you refresh or leave this page, you’ll lose your place in line!”

So, here’s the thing, Ticketmaster. We know you have an exclusive relationship with every large venue in the country. We’ve tried to persuade ourselves to accept your fees. But you also have a job, and that job is to be as fair as you can with ticket sales. What that means is twofold:

First: get the capacity you need to process ticket sales for large venues. Assume that everyone will go to your site and buy tickets the moment they go on sale.

Second: manage the queue properly. Nothing frustrates users more than unfair lines. In this case, perception is 90% of the job: users need to feel that they are treated fairly. And, let me tell you, randomly resetting the timer every few minutes does not inspire feelings of fairness.

Back to my engineering lesson. To blink the light in this case requires a timer that works. It can be either a countdown timer that never resets or a always changing and always decreasing counter of where the user is in the queue, or it can be any other indicator you see fit. Just tell the user what is going on, make the process seem fair, make them feel respected. That way, even if they don’t succeed in getting tickets, they’ll still feel they were treated fairly.

My point in this post was not to vent about my Ticketmaster experience (though that part was fun) but rather to discuss a more general use case. There isn’t always the capacity to treat a high volume of users at the same time or processing power to complete a transaction without a lag but in both cases add an indicator to let users know that something is going on. Users get frustrated really quickly when technology seems not to work and then refresh, restart, and reboot. Blinking a light, or its digital equivalent, helps reassure them that whatever the process, it’s still alive.


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