Grace Notes

Over on the Work Play Experience blog, Adam Lawrence makes a great observation about sequence in service delivery. He recounts an example from his commute. The train attendant walks down the aisle offering coffee to the passengers, but they generally ignore him until it’s too late:

But if you watch the rows behind him, you will see a dramatic effect. About five seconds after he passes, people smell the java. They look up with bright caffeine-addict expressions, their hands groping in a tight back pocket for change. They lean out of their seats, ready to order and… the guy is gone.

One day he happened to turn around because he had forgotten something and unexpectedly sold his entire batch of coffee within three rows. People were ready to buy.

What Lawrence extrapolates from this is that the passengers needed to be primed by the smell of the coffee before they engaged. Something similar happens on airplanes. The flight attendants wheel the food and beverage cart from the back of the plane all the way to the front (or sometimes vice versa) before they start serving. That way passengers have a chance to notice the cart and mentally prepare for a purchase before the attendants come back around to them.

The analogy I draw is from music. A grace note is a short, separate note that occurs immediately before a longer run of notes. If a musician were to simply launch into an extended passage, the listener might be apt to miss the effect of the first few notes and struggle to catch up. The grace note engages attention and makes the sequence more impressive. I often use the visual equivalent of this principle in interface design to delineate animations; it works exactly the same way.

In popular usage, a grace note has come to mean something of relatively little significance. But as Lawrence’s example demonstrates, they can make or break a service.

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