Mr Walt’s Wild Rides: Five things Disney World can teach us about UX design

Disney’s Imagineers are doing something very right, so what can we learn from them as UX designers?

Creating the happiest place on Earth may well be the greatest feat of user experience design ever accomplished. And although you may not have the jaw-dropping budget and 60+ years experience of delighting customers, like they do at Disneyland Resort, Disney World and the various other parks across the globe, you can certainly learn a lot about user experience from Disney’s Imagineers.

Years ago, I visited an exhibition at the Pompidou Centre, titled Imagined Worlds. The thesis behind the exhibition was that theme parks, from the World Fairs of the 1940s to modern parks like Universal Studios, were the fantasy realms of their creators brought into reality through architectural craft – that they are, works of art.

It’s a convincing idea and it’s given me a lasting fascination with theme parks. The more I learn about them, the more I realise that they aren’t just artworks, they’re also masterpieces of user experience design.

The sheer scale of a theme park requires a ridiculous amount of Machiavellian manipulation to allow it to function, but when you’re talking about Disney’s 12 parks, across four countries, hosting 150 million guests per year, the success of the parks is a feat comparable to the moon landing.

Disney’s doing something very, very right, so what can we learn from all this as UX designers?

1) Break things down into bite-size chunks

There are four Disney parks in Florida, with the smallest covering 30,000 acres, hosting 46 rides, just as many attractions and many, many more shops, restaurants and things to see and do.

Just walking into the gates and pulling out a map, you’re hit with a staggering blast of paradox of choice. What do you do first? How can you fit everything in?

Simple. Look at the map:

It’s a circle. All the Disney parks are big circles, with areas branching off the main thoroughfare, like a roundabout. If the visitor is just looking around, they will wonder round the circular path, come to Adventureland and have a much-shorter list of rides and attractions to choose from.

If they run out of things to do in Adventureland, they will leave and move round the circle to Frontierland and repeat. Conversely, if they want to go directly to a ride in Frontierland, there’s as direct a route as possible.

That’s exactly how your site navigation should be.

Instead of offering 50 services, for example, you should categorise these into five areas. Allow users to tour through all five in sequence, if they don’t know what they want, or if they are looking for something specific, signpost which area it’s in and let them skip straight there.

However, don’t forget to give them the option to continue the tour of your categories after, in case they need something else.

2) Manage expectations

Every ride at Disney has a digital sign over the top of the queue entrance, telling you exactly how long you can expect to wait.

At regular intervals, staff hand a random customer a card on a lanyard as they enter the queue for a ride and another employee takes it from them at the end of the queue to get an estimate for the wait.

Of course, this is wildly inaccurate. Once the estimate has been published, the queue length has already changed, but that doesn’t matter. The UX is improved because users have a numerical value to use to overcome their paradox of choice. They will go to a ride because the queue time is shorter, instead of spending their day arguing over what ride to do next. This increases their productivity and makes for a better experience.

When building your site, think about your user journeys and how long it will take to complete them. Give your user a time estimate, or at least a visual representation of their progress to give them a guide.

However, this isn’t the only benefit Disney gathers from the queue estimate system. The queue-time estimate naturally guides free-roaming guests to rides that have fewer people in the queues. This balances the length of the queues across all the rides and more-evenly distributes guests around the park, preventing it from getting too busy in any one place.

You can’t outright lie to your customers, of course, but the way you display the progress bar in your user journey can guide your customers onto the most efficient path.

For example, if your progress bar gives more weight to the easy parts of a form, so it says ‘80% complete’ when you hit the intensive bit, instead of 60%, it will encourage your users to finish.

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3) Combat boredom

Every ride at Disney has something going on in the queue; even something as simple as a view of the ride. Elsewhere, there are live performers, TVs, interactive exhibits, wonderfully-designed backdrops and animatronic pre-shows.

If you have a load screen, add a little animation or a simple clickable game; have a random fact about camels appear or something. It doesn’t really matter what you have, so long as you have something for the customer to do, other than sitting there frustrated that your user journey has a pause.

Moving away from Disney, look at Universal Studios’ Volcano Bay water park. The water slides are popular enough to have a queue system too, but the park has an innovative way of dealing with them.

If you want to get on a slide, you tap a waterproof wrist-device you’re given as you enter the park on a pad in front of the ride. You can then go away and enjoy the park. When it’s your turn, the watch vibrates on your wrist and you can return to the slide and take your place in a very short queue.

We have the technology, so don’t make your users wait. If they need to queue for something, like a service desk or something to be processed, send them away to get on with their day and email them when you’re ready for them to come back.

4) Know what’s important to your customers and make it easy

I visited Disney World as a child. A common feature of most rides was a photo area, where you would pass a camera and have a photo taken at the moment of your worst-possible reaction to the ride, such as the top of the biggest drop. After the ride, you would visit a kiosk offering you the chance to buy the photo, and you would inevitably walk straight by.

Disney knows full-well that looking at those photos later can embody an awesome adventure and prompt you to want to return, but also that people will likely not bother queueing up to buy that photo in the middle of their day out. That’s part of the reason they spent $1 billion on setting up Magic Bands in 2013.

Magic Bands are little, rubber bands that strap around your wrists and contain RFID chips. They cost about $30 and are programmed with your park ticket and your room key for your hotel, as well as any ride Fast Passes you’ve booked and can even be linked to your hotel room bill, so you can buy things in the park.

This avoids any risk of you losing your paper tickets and saves you having to carry a wallet when you’ll be flying upside-down at 60mph.

What I found really awesome, however, was the MemoryMaker feature. You see, when you pass that camera I mentioned, the hardware reads your Magic Band and logs the photo to your account. As such, if you’ve downloaded the Disney App, the photo then automatically appears on your phone.

Likewise, if you have any photos taken with any characters, you can tap your band on a device the park photographers have and it’s also yours.

Disney realised that holiday photos matter to people, but also that no-one buys paper prints of photos any more. As such, they found a way to charge people a reasonable amount for a handy gizmo that automatically puts their holiday snaps on their phone exactly where they want them. That’s user experience in action.

5) Reward premium customers

Disney knows how gruelling the queue times can be, particularly on popular or new rides. As such, you can book a slot to skip the lines with a FastPass, three times a day. Still, those sell out almost immediately and, if they do, you’re left back in the queue.

Pay the extra money to stay in one of the 26 Disney hotels around the park area, however, and you can book your FastPasses sixty days in advance and never have to queue for more than ten minutes for any ride.

Not to mention, you get the above Magic Bands for free. If you want to get on all the rides in one holiday, it’s basically essential, which is completely intentional.

This is the same model that most mobile games and a lot of apps use. Yes, you can use the service for free, but you won’t ever get the optimal experience unless you pay. Essentially, Disney’s pushing you to buy the more expensive package, but by placing the onus on you to save money by enduring periods of boredom, they’re making it seem like a choice, when really it’s a punishment for not paying more.

If you want to drive conversion, it’s easy to make your free or cheap alternative annoying or complex because of a simple flaw your customer can pay to avoid. Never underestimate how much people will do to avoid a small inconvenience.

Creating the happiest place on Earth may well be the greatest feat of user experience design ever accomplished, and the above examples are just the tip of the iceberg of what goes into making Disney World work. It’s well worth looking further into Disney’s UX as it never hurts to learn from the masters, or the uh… mouseters, if you will!?