Theme parks and UX design: Common parallels shaping the user-experience

Published on November 8, 2017

By: Raduan Kalaf, User Experience Architect 

Everyone has to start somewhere – whether that means selling lemonade on the street, working in your town’s local mall, or serving hamburgers and fries to your high school friends. Being an Orlando native, I had the opportunity to work for a theme park built around service design: Universal Orlando Resort. It’s often the dream of every 11-year-old to walk down the halls of Hogwarts wearing the warm wool vest, hugged by a long flowing robe. I got to live it.
Though it would’ve been an elaborate fantasy to be accepted to Hogwarts, eventually reality took over and I began my career in user-experience design and architecture. While the two positions certainly have some differences, they also share some fundamental commonalities, specifically in regards to how the entire user-experience is crafted.

While reflecting on these two experiences, I realized that a lot of UX designers come from dissimilar and unexpected backgrounds — maybe some have experience as developers or designers, and some others may have spent years as neurologists or architects. There is no one size fits all when it comes to being a UX designer, and in a lot of ways, the ability to pull ideas and inspiration from tangible, first-hand experiences is exactly what it takes to propel a product or digital vision forward.

When we think about the real purposes of UX design, we think about delivering the best experience possible, and, designing a digital user-experience isn’t so far off from creating physical experiences. Here are the parallels I often draw between my current role and my theme park experience.

Leveraging Stakeholders

During the opening week of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP), the park saw a volume of people waiting in line for almost 8 hours. As part of the opening team, I always wondered how they nailed the marketing of this new addition so well. It turns out, their publicity team did extensive research on the targeted user base. One of the findings was that Harry Potter fans would only accept the new Wizarding World if bloggers, relevant influencers, and social media elites praised it. The WWoHP took this and ran with it: they catered to targeted influencers, gave them firsthand information, and let them visit the park first.

We’re often sitting down with stakeholders to better understand needs or pain points and leveraging them as proxies to users. Simply put, research is an incredibly valuable tool. Even when you have a desired outcome, sometimes you discover things along the way that can provide direction, and inform decisions or shape initiatives moving forward. To blindly strategize without having any formal indication about your users perspective could be a costly mistake.

Build Consistency

Theme parks go to great lengths to fully create a world that immerses its guests. Some of them can be obvious: music, sound effects, colors, costumes. Some of them not so obvious: Universal’s Jurassic Park area features thousands of plants, Universal’s Seuss Landing used styrofoam around every building to create a world where no right angles or straight lines exist, and Universal’s Marvel Superhero Island uses two-tone paint to transform the buildings during different times of day. It’s truly remarkable how quickly a guest can realize they’ve been transported from one world to the next by the striking change of consistent visuals and sounds.

Consistency is critical to offering a seamless experience for users–especially when there are multiple touch points involved. Creating a consistent experience isn’t easier because it’s on the web; I’d say it’s actually harder considering you’re only using the user’s sense of sight rather than all five senses. Designing for web narrows down to the colors, styles, fonts, imagery, and most importantly, the copy. All the minutiae has to be defined at the beginning of the project by understanding what would resonate with your audience most effectively.

Appeal To New And Existing Users

Oftentimes, the storytelling built within attractions at theme parks are completely lost on those with no existing familiarity of the narrative, or those visiting for a short amount of time who are aiming to do and see as much as possible. Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights’ haunted houses is a good example of a ride that has elaborate story arches from beginning to end, with each room having intricate details of what has happened before the scene and what’s about to happen to you. Do most guests realize this? Not usually — they’re too busy covering their eyes and screaming bloody murder. It’s for the returning visitors, and it’s intended to move guests from beginning to end in an obvious way that’s memorable and has an emotional impact.

What does that mean for our users? Storyboarding is a great way to understand how your users navigate their way through the experience. Try creating a realistic sense of how users think while they interact with different touch points and leave little nuggets of delight for those returning users. Think about the different user pathways throughout the design process. How would your digital users navigate this platform? What needs do you need to fulfil for them when they’re engaging with your product? Anticipate the user’s navigation and build the structure in a way that mirrors their mental model.

Personalize the Experience

Did you know that all rides end in the gift shop? Have you ever wondered why? It’s simple: theme park guests who have just experienced an enveloping story through all senses want to keep a trinket as a reminder. But, what sells the best in gift shops? Clearly defined characterizations of personas. A reason why Universal’s The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP) has been so popular is because people identify with these four houses: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw. It doesn’t stop there — most people will identify with certain characters because they feel connected to those character traits in some way, making for a more “personalized” souvenir purchase from the gift shop. Out of the $21 billion dollars that the Harry Potter franchise gained in revenue, $7 billion (33%) of that was solely from merchandise.

Ultimately, whenever possible, personalization creates more impactful experiences online, too. Users are not only more receptive to personalization in content, ads, or digital experiences, but they expect it now. Offering a customized experience for your user improves the likelihood of a purchase, better connects users with a brand’s experience, and ultimately contributes to a loyal customer base.

Focus On Continual Improvement

As someone who has grown up around theme parks, I’ve seen a lot of change. It’s often difficult for theme parks to shut down attractions in order to update a 90s-themed ride into something that provokes the desire to experience it again. Some examples include: EPCOT’s Test Track, Universal’s The Incredible Hulk, and Universal’s The Amazing Spider-Man.

Can we create timeless experiences? I would say that this errs on the side of “no.” Technology is constantly changing and so are our expectations. This doesn’t stop at design or UI. The Incredible Hulk redid its ride to be more accommodating and efficient for guests, while Test Track updated its technology to offer a more personalized experience, with unique cars for each guest — making a classic ride new again.

No matter how great an experience is, there is always the opportunity to enter the feedback loop and aim to rectify pain points. Just like UX designers, theme parks are constantly evolving and ideating to stay relevant and keep users happy.

Theme park designers craft their guests’ experience from beginning to end, taking into account every detail that can support transforming a space, ride, store, or restaurant into a feeling. As UX designer’s pull from our experiences and channel them into future products, we create products or digital interactions that fit into a user’s journey with that same level of thinking. Be sure that every decision you make will add value to the user’s experience. Creating memorable user experiences is just as valuable as creating a thrilling rollercoaster ride that people want to wait in line to experience over and over again. If you can achieve that – if people continuously visit your site because they’ve had a pleasant and personal experience on the site that you’ve created – then you’re not just doing your job, you’re creating an adventure as exciting as riding a Hippogriff.