Universal Studi… err… Universal Design at Disney
Who are we designing for?
Just up the road from the Disney parks in Florida and California lies Universal Studios. My wife doesn’t like these parks. She finds Universal Studios loud and garish. Maybe it’s because they’re a little bit rock-and-roll, and she’s a little bit country. But, I have heard the opposite expressed as well – particularly from families with teenagers who desire a few more high-speed thrills than can be found at Disney. I would argue that designers of both parks clearly had in mind two different audiences, they crafted the experiences accordingly, and both succeeded. As designers, we often state the importance of knowing your user, or put another way…
You don’t build it for yourself. You know what the people want and you build it for them. – Walt Disney
Designers at both of these companies do have a common challenge: they are designing for a diverse group of park guests. No single persona would ever cover all of their target users. However, Walt Disney argued that there is a common emotional goal all people share, children and adults alike: the need to play. This principle has been thoughtfully applied not only to accommodate different ages, but different interests and physical abilities as well.
Examples of accommodating diverse guests
Supporting parents and children
Many people associate Disney with family entertainment – and children make up a huge portion of the parks’ guests at any given time. Disney has an obvious financial interest in making the experience good for both the parent (user and paying customer) and child (user and future customer).
As will be covered in a future article, one of Disney’s strengths is their consideration of details big and small. And, speaking of little, let’s talk about the height of children. Not so big. And yet for a parent, little details like having sinks in the restrooms at the perfect height for a child is a big deal. You can see this principle applied elsewhere in the parks and hotels. Peepholes on new construction may be at two different heights to let kid see in. These ergonomic details make life both easier and more enjoyable for the parent and child.
Also, to ensure that all guests in a party can experience a ride and not get stuck outside babysitting, Disney helped popularize Rider Swap. Adults and children both go through the line, then the adults take turns riding the ride while the other waits with the child. Of particular interest is the simplicity of this process. No special infrastructure or technology with it associated costs, was needed to implement the system.
Supporting different interests
Even within a particular age group, interests vary widely. At the risk of sounding like a commercial, Disney has something for everyone by virtue of their themed parks: princesses or pirates, real elephants or flying elephants, preschool shows or adult nightclubs, lazy rivers or high-speed log flumes, parades in the day or shows at night.
But even more than this, I’m intrigued by how they customize the same ride to give different experiences for different interests. The Mission:Space ride in Epcot now has two choices for riders. One uses a centrifugal-like element to spin riders and give them the sensation of weightlessness. The other, which maintains all the same visuals from the first experience, slows down the motion for people who may want a more calm experience (or, as is my case, may have a wee problem with seasickness – I’ll save you from the photos).
Supporting different abilities
Many guests at Disney parks may easily overlook the support which is provided to those with physical limitations such as mobility, visual or hearing disabilities. A cynical reader may question if this support is forced due to some legal or ADA requirement. While it may be impossible to know the motivation, the end result is easy to see – more people are given the chance for a bit of happiness.
Historically, there have been many accommodations for impaired guests made throughout the park. Obviously, the park supports those who need a wheelchair through ramps and other architectural elements. Riders may either use the main entrance to attractions, or in some cases, a special entrance for easier access. Some pools provide easy zero-depth entrance for those in a wheelchair.
For those with visual and hearing impairments, Braille has been used on large maps around the park to help with navigation and sign-language interpretation is available on certain days. More recently, Disney has been exploring how technology can be leveraged to enhance their experience through distribution of a “Handheld Device.” This award-winning invention utilizes GPS and other sensors to either amplify nearby audio messages, or provide a running commentary that describes the user’s surroundings. Likewise, its LCD screen can also provide a transcription of ongoing audio.
While users of this device may have a different sensory experience compared to other guests, it helps them achieve a similar emotional experience. This ultimately may be the most important thing.
I can’t express how great it was to be able to use this technology to “see” the park like they did. – a blind user
I won’t be missing those special details anymore. – a partially deaf user
To be able to laugh and enjoy something in synch is not something we often get to experience together – a deaf/hearing couple
Learn more about the development of the device, including how studies informed the button and information design:
Implications for designers
The importance of understanding who you are designing for is familiar to most readers of this article. This is the bread-and-butter for a user experience designer, regardless of whether we are targeting our products to a very wide audience like Disney, or a very small one. But we are a young profession and still learning. There are areas where best practices still need to be develop.
By no means am I suggesting that Disney is perfect. Many trees have been killed publishing books filled with tips on how to visit their parks. People should not need an instruction manual on how to play and have fun! I believe most of the confusion is driven from the overabundance of choices (in attractions, hotels, food, cost, etc). And given the significant cost of the vacation, people feel pressured to make the right choices. Companies in this situation should place greater effort on decision-support systems that help people in an engaging and fun way.
I believe we are also entering an age where the ubiquity of computing technology will surround children at very young ages. Who has not seen YouTube videos of babies playing with iPads, or the reverse, expecting a printed magazine to support swipe gestures? As a discipline, we really have very few guidelines on how to best design experiences for children. And, we have even fewer guidelines on how the same product may adapt itself for people of different ages.
Smashing Magazine’s recommendations on app design for children caught my eye for highlighting an issue in Disney’s own iPad storybook software. The menu option (often unneeded by kids) was placed along the bottom of the screen where small fingers could easily bump and activate it causing them to get stuck in an undesired state. These are the types of heuristics which the UX profession can help develop and promote.
Finally, it’s worth asking if Disney is truly practicing “Universal Design”? Are their products and environment “aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life”? (as defined by Ronald Mace). For example, controversy exists whether Segways may be used safely in the park. Disney recently settled a class-action lawsuit brought on by those who wished to use Segways for mobility.
Despite these occasional debates, I would argue that Disney is clearly on the journey of applying Universal Design principles. “1d. Make the design appealing to all users.” – Check (unless you like that other park!). “4a. Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information.” – Check. “7a. Provide a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user.” – Check.
I think the challenge for us as designers, is: if others are innovating, what are we doing to support needs of people with different abilities? Theme parks manage the complexity of a physical environment. Most of our focus is on virtual environments. Software should enable us to easily develop new ideas, or at least, implement the basic guidelines. Of course, I say this shamefully as I’m not even aware of all the accessibility features built into WordPress which is running this blog. Clearly, more education is needed.
Thanks for visiting
Disney has actually created an internal name for their method of knowing and understanding its customers: “Guestology” … sure to be covered more in the future articles. Whatever you call it in your company, we can all agree that it is important. I’d love to hear examples you’ve seen of products or services that are doing a great job accommodating needs of different people.