December 9, 2015


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2 Lessons in Disney User Experience


Disneyworld is a great place to embrace your inner kid. It’s also a great place to go if you are a user experience designer. I can’t think of many places where they have put as much thought, energy and money into creating a purposeful and controlled user experience as on a Disney property. Creating memorable, fun and safe experiences is in their DNA as a company.

I recently went there for Thanksgiving and had a great time. I am a designer, however, which means I can never really turn off my critical brain. I had two experiences there—on the property, but outside the parks—that stood out to me as indicative of how hard it is to design for and maintain great user experiences. Even our favorite mouse has to work at it.

An unnecessary mistake
First the bad one. Signage. Disney still has work to do when it comes to signage. One afternoon, we were leaving our resort, The Wilderness Lodge, and came to the bus stop. Two spaces for busses. One sign for each space. On the sign we looked at, it said Animal Kingdon, then a line below it, then it said Hollywood Studios (our intended destination).

Great! We thought. This is the bus that goes to both the Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. Up comes the bus, it says Animal Kingdom on its display and we get on. After about a 30 minute ride we arrive at the Animal Kingdom and are told we must depart. Why? Becuase that bus went no further. It didn’t go on to Hollywood Studios. We had to depart. Walk a ways to another bus stop. Wait for an extended time. Board another bus and eventually get to our destination—2 hours later. It should have been a 20 minute ride.

I know what you are thinking. Cry me a river. You spent a whole two hours in transit. But from Disney’s perspective, that was a big fail. That is two hours of a frustrated customer, who has limited time to experience your parks. That is two hours where they aren’t in the park having fun, making memories, sharing photos—spending money.

When we returned to our lodge, as we were walking away from the bus stop and towards our building, we saw another sign exactly alike to the one we looked at when facing the bus—with one minor difference. It displayed our two destinations with the dividing line between them. But, within the dividing line between Animal Kingdon and Hollywood studios there was a simple statement: Separate Buses.

Epic fail. Why would we, as customers, turn around and look behind us to find information that is already right in front of us, facing the object of our intent? If it is necessary to add that critical information on the sign behind us, why isn’t it on the primary one that customers faces? Little details matter a great deal—especially when your users are in an environment that is unfamiliar, and on a schedule that is often out of their control.

The happy captain
You can take a lot of boats at Disneyworld. If you navigate between the parks, you will end up travelling by monorail, bus or by boat. Every day, we took a boat from the Wilderness Lodge to the Magic Kingdom. And we saw several different captains during our trip, but one set himself apart from all the others.

When we boarded his boat, he welcomed each and every passenger. After we were all aboard, he made the typical safety speech, but worked a joke into it which got a laugh from the children. Then, as we moved through the water, he started to engage the passengers by telling stories and asking trivia questions about the history of the park.

“Over there, Walt saw a bear the first time he looked at that property, so if you look at the lodge from a certain angle, you will see a bear’s face.”

“That island to your left has an interesting name and history. Walt accidentally beached his boat there. Let me tell you more…”

“Anyone know the name of this lake we are in? How deep do you think the water is here? Which resort is the oldest on the property?”

By the end of the 10 minute boat ride, we were all in a great mood. After we departed, my wife turned to me and said “that guy was awesome.” We didn’t feel like we just got off a boring shuttle. We felt like we got off a park ride.

It is amazing the difference a creative person can make when they think about the details—when they think beyond the basics of accomplishing their task at hand. Yes, the captain’s task was to transport us safely from one spot to another, and he accomplished his task like every other boat captain. But unlike the others, he made his an engaging inexperience.

These are just two of probably hundreds of simple and complex interactions we had. You can’t control every experience—especially at the scale that Disney operates. What you can do, is hire, train, and never stop thinking about what it means to the customer to have a meaningful experience. And to do your best to make it a great one.

If you want to learn more about Disney’s approach to customer service, check out Be Our Guest. It’s a great book.

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