What makes Disneyland the happiest place on earth?

16 Jun 2009|LiAnne Yu

Disneyland parisWhat makes Disneyland the happiest place on earth? Those of us love Disneyland understand that there’s pure magic in the park, our sense of reality is suspended and, long lines and overpriced food aside, we step into a sense of wonder. But how is this achieved? I recently read Designing Disney: The Art of the Show, and was captivated by Walt’s vision and leadership of his design team, called the Imagineers, and how they developed principles for what we at Cheskin Added Value call Experience Design. As unique as the Disney experience is, I believe a lot of those principles can also be thought of as universal guidelines for truly remarkable experience design. Here are some of the principles:

Design is about the “art of the story.” The Imagineers create guided experiences that take place in carefully structured environments, allowing their guests to see, hear, even smell, touch, and taste in new ways. Design is about giving power the guests’ imagination, to transcend their everyday routines. Given that everything we design, whether it be a mobile device to a spray bottle, is part of our everyday lives, and our everyday lives are made up of multiple storylines, understanding design in the context of stories can help us think more about the experiences we seek to create.

“Liking the guests” is fundamental to Imagineering. Walt believed that to build effective story environments and assure guest comfort, the designers had to always assume the guests’ point of view, and defend them even when others didn’t think that it mattered. Those of us in market research hear and talk a lot about user experiences or customer-centric design. But I think what Walt had in mind went beyond making sure to get consumers’ perspectives – he required his design team to walk in their shoes and develop true empathy and connection with them.

Understand the role of memory. The Imagineers need to deeply understand the role of memory as they seek to engage the imagination in visualization and play. Main Street USA is an example of mood created by sensation that results in enhanced reality. The windows are full of bright displays, the doors are open, the shelves are stocked, and the colors are bright. Every detail creates a feeling of comfort and intimacy, tapping into our nostalgia for a kind of street that rarely exists in our modern world. In the Cheskin Added Value world of experience design, we also strive to understand memory imprints, and how that affects behavior in the present.

Understand playtime, ceremony, and ritual. Walt understood that there is a ceremonial aspect to any form of play. There is excitement in deciding to go and planning what to take and wear, the anticipation of arrival, and the pure pleasure of walking through the entrance with the intention of play. Imagineers create the feeling of ritual at the park’s entrance, using the tunnel as a marker of the transport of guests from their everyday lives to a special place. The products we use in our everyday lives, be it a shaver or a video game, are also often part of rituals we have, transporting us from one mode to another. Understanding not just the use and utility of a product, but its symbolic and ritualistic meaning, is key to great experience design.

The importance of details and dangers of contradictions. Walt insisted that his Imagineering team take the greatest care with design details. He understood that if visual details disagree, guests experience active clutter. Mixed messages set up conflicts, create tensions, and may feel threatening. Walk used the film idea of a cross-dissolve to help transition from one place to another, without creating conflicting details. For example, he didn’t want people to turn abruptly from Main Street to Adventureland, so he provided guests with subtle sensory clues that indicate change is happening. Walkway surfaces change from concrete to cut stone, the hand railing changes, Main Street’s music yields to animals’ growls and howls, and a planked bridge highlights the final moment of the transition. In my line of work, I see a lot of contradictory details, especially in technology, as engineering and product teams try to cram everything possible into a product, rather than thinking about the clutter a customer experiences.

Disneyland and the other parks are more than just great places to vacation – they are great examples of the impact of thoughtful and rigorous experience design.


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