Confessions of an Experience Designer : “Everything I needed to know I learned from Disneyland!”

2004-12-15
Disneyland is a key precedent for "Experience Design"
The year 2005 will see the completion of the first phase of Hong Kong Disneyland and the 50th anniversary of the opening of the original Disneyland in Southern California. Walt Disney did not invent the modern amusement park, or even the themed amusement park; he brought organization and design to the creation of the amusement park experience. Disneyland is a significant achievement for visual design, information design, interaction design, and communication design, and it is a key precedent for the combined discipline, which has recently been labeled “Experience Design.”


Design Principles

Considering the factors that make a Disneyland experience an enjoyable and proven entity will lead experience designers in other media forms, such as digital and interactive media, to some important design principles. The design creation of Disneyland combined lessons learned from storytelling, animation, amusement parks, urban planning, model railroading and architecture. The practice of experience design is characterized by this integration of previously isolated areas of interest. Now, Disneyland informs the experience design process at a minimum of three points: structural design, the separation of experience, structure and reality, and the use of emotional design.

Structurally, the original design of Disneyland incorporates a story path to connect the various lands and attractions and lead people through, while also allowing the guests--the Disney word for a client, customer or user--to choose their own path through the park. Information designers can recognize the basic network structure of the original iteration of Disneyland as a hub and spoke. There is a hub at the center of the park from which pathways extend into each of the five themed areas, or lands. There is an implied story in this non-linear design that takes the guest from the Entrance down Main Street, U.S.A. to the hub and then through Adventureland to Frontierland then Fantasyland and finally Tomorrowland. Each land is a self-contained area where attractions fit within the theme, but the story connects the areas and unifies the experience. The guest has the power to choose their pathway once they are at the hub, but the implied structure exists for those who have a limited interest in making navigational choices while they enjoy their day. This basic structure has also allowed the park to grow and develop over time.


Story Structure

Providing a story structure with interactive opportunity translates quite easily to experiences in the digital realm. Creating an underlying story in computer-based experiences provides a simple navigational structure for novice users. The non-linear attributes of the hub and spoke also accommodates users with higher levels of experience in the space and varying degrees of interest in individualized way-finding.

Disneyland also teaches that there needs to be a separation of the experience from its internal structure and operation, and from reality or the world outside the borders of the designed space of the experience. This separation is absolutely necessary to engage the guest in the total experience.

One way to implement the separation of the space inside the experience and outside the experience is the creation of a single entrance and exit. Most amusement areas designed before Disneyland had multiple entry and exit points. They were designed to fit on the available real estate and draw potential customers from every possible angle, not unlike many web sites today. The single entrance/exit of Disneyland makes it possible to create and control the experience of each user in the park. Each guest steps inside the imaginary and physical barrier between the real world and Disneyland at the same point and their transition from the outside world to the inside world is emphasized by moving down Main Street to hub of the park and Sleeping Beauty's Castle.

A digital example of controlled transition from the outside to the inside and the function of the single entrance is the difference between a Java, Shockwave or Flash-based web experience and most other web site designs. When a multiple media technology such as Java or Flash is used to create a web experience then a user has a single point of entry into the information, tools, games, or community found there. Sites using this type of technology bridge the outside and inside with an animation that introduces the user to the experience within the borders of the site, they are drawn down Main Street to the world inside. Upon reaching the hub of the site, or application, users can then follow an implied story, when one exists, or choose the nodes that interest them within possibilities provided by the application. In most other types of web sites users can enter at any point as long as they know the address, or are able to click on a button that is connected directly inside. This negates the possibility of a transition from the outside to the inside or the establishment of an overall experience. The user is attracted to a single element of the experience with no particular reference to the site, application or experience as a whole. There is limited possibility for the development of a unified story or other attributes that would solidify the experience, increase usability and leave a strong impression.

The separation of the infrastructure of Disneyland with the guest experience is also a significant part of this principle. Every attempt is made to keep the “backstage” areas of Disneyland beyond the view of guests. The core experience is one of diversion and entertainment. Watching a movie the filmmakers invite audience members to join in the process by “suspending their disbelief” about the reality of the experience. As a filmmaker Walt Disney understood this concept and brought it to the design of his amusement park. The guest as voluntary participant does not want the experience to be broken by exposure to the mechanics and routines of the park's operation. This principle is so strong that the Magic Kingdom, “Disneyland,” at Walt Disney World in Florida has a massive network of passageways and transportation resources underneath the park so that the business of the park can be carried out efficiently and beyond the view of guests.

Looking again to the digital realm, this aspect of computer-based experiences can be controlled with the use of Java, Flash or Shockwave. With these technologies, the user does not have access to the mechanics of the application, unless there is a coding problem that crashes the entire application. When other authoring schemes are used to develop a web site, users can have of access to the underlying structure of the site, which will undermine the continuity of the experience and the engagement of the user.


Emotional Design

Another principle, which can be gleaned from the Disneyland experience, is the role of emotional design in the creation of an interesting and memorable experience. It is possible to talk at length about the use of fully saturated-color, simple and pleasing shapes and forms, and the connections these and other design factors make with the emotional state of guests at Disneyland. It is also possible to talk about the reliance on childhood stories, memories and themes to create an emotional connection between the attractions and the guests. But here I will touch briefly on the navigational aspects of emotional design in Disneyland.

Standing at the hub of Disneyland is Sleeping Beauty's Castle. It faces south to catch the light of the Southern California sun. It also faces the entrance of the park and is in nearly constant view as guests make their way down Main Street. This is what Walt Disney called a “Visual Weenie”— a sausage at the end of a stick used to attract the attention of stage dogs during filming. He wanted the park to have something beautiful and attractive to draw guests to the hub and then into the park. In this single example is seen the need for attractive elements within experiences, elements that draw the user to the next area or aspect of the experience. These attractive elements are also meant to drive the underlying story and give the guest a sense of where there is something interesting to see or do. They create the possibility for navigation without the need for complex decision-making. Attractive, well-designed, elements by definition draw the attention of users to what is interesting and possible. Attractive elements also make the user feel good about their choice of experience and make them more tolerant of any problems they may encounter in the experience. Disneyland connects very strongly with the emotional state of guests. Digital experiences, depending on their function, should not emphasize the emotional at the cost of other considerations, but to ignore this aspect of an experience will make it more difficult to attract, engage and keep users over the long term.

Fifty years of first time and repeat visitors testing and evaluating a single evolving experience design seems to indicate that the “superior experience” of Disneyland contains principles worth identifying and replicating. Creating experiences using principles from this type of success will not guarantee the quality of an experience design but it is certainly a good place to start.


■Russell B. Williams
Assistant Professor
Digital Graphic Communications,
Department of Communication Studies,
Hong Kong Baptrst University
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