We just got back from a trip to Disneyland. We’ve been a couple times, and I always wonder at their ability to design spaces. If you have done any game development, or even if you’ve just played a lot of games, you will know that most of game design is moving people from one place to another, one task to another. Doing that smoothly, interactively, and enjoyably, is arguably the core of game design. If a menu is difficult to use, if an interface is tricky to manage, people won’t play your game. If there are too many unintuitive moments or situations, people will quit playing. Difficult puzzles and complex interaction take a distant backseat to the more common knob twiddling and button pressing that players are required to do. It’s these spaces between the ‘gameplay’ where most players fall off. The people who design Disney’s parks are absolute masters at this. If the rides and shows are the ‘gameplay’ getting people from one to the other is the game design of a theme park.
I have written a little about how they use eyelines and the transitions between spaces to guide your experience. That’s probably what most people will notice and comment on. The physical movement from place to place. You usually won’t be able to see one area or land from another. Structures will block your view until you get pretty close to another area, and even then the transitions can take you by surprise. This makes you feel more immersed in the land you are in, but it also makes you feel like you are discovering things just by walking. You turn a corner, or pass under an archway, and suddenly you are in a whole new place.
This manipulation and crafting of physical space is amazing, and it’s worth studying if you are at all interested in how game levels work. Especially if that game level has to accommodate hundreds or thousands of players. I want to focus on something else. A little bit of UX that disney has really refined.
Information. It would be easy to just provide all information at all times. A lot of seasoned game designers often say that you should provide as much information to the player as you possibly can, and then let them decide what to do with it. Like most things, it’s never that simple, and the user experience can sometimes be improved by withholding some information. I will provide a couple of examples I noticed during this last disney trip.
First is the most obvious bit of information. The length of ride lines at Disneyland is posted at the entrance gate to each ride. This is something they have been doing for some time. They break the times up into five minute increments, but if the board says five minutes, that really means you can just walk right on. Anything from fifteen minutes to thirty minutes will probably be shockingly accurate.
Now this bit of information can do a few things. First, guests of the park can decide if they want to wait in line or not. Lines to ride popular attractions are a given, so some amount of waiting is expected. As the time to ride increases, the amount of people who are willing to wait decreases. Only the most popular rides will ever have line times longer than an hour. There are so many other attractions at the park, you might as well head off to one of the other ones. Just this little bit of information will naturally spread guests around the park, and get people to try out less popular attractions.
That bit of information does something else too. You can see most of the lines snaking out from the rides, but people are extremely bad at estimating. If you looked at the line to, say, The Haunted Mansion, it would be difficult to judge the difference between a half hour long line or a one hour long line. Often, parts of the line are out of view of the path, so you wouldn’t even be able to count the people if you wanted to. Ride operators will adjust the length of the line by opening and closing different loop-backs and u-turns. Visually, the lines can be very deceiving. The shape and space of the lines changes from ride to ride as well. Something that looks like a very long line on one ride might only be a few minutes on another. Those boards will help you decide how to spend your time at the park. Pair that with the phone app that provides you with the same information about ride wait times, and you have the makings of a really powerful queue and crowd management system. All you had to do is provide the information.
The next thing is maps. Disneyland has a distinct lack of maps. You know those ubiquitous mall guide boards? Yeah, Disneyland doesn’t have any of those. You can certainly grab a map from the information booth, or you can look at the one in the phone app, but everything in the park is set up so that you don’t need one. If you follow any path, it will loop back around to the main hub. Every path, eventually, feeds back into the central ring of the park. This means, if you know where it is you want to go, you are probably never very far from it. But also, if you don’t know where you want to go, and this is the important bit, you can just keep walking forward to inevitably see all of the park. You could just walk around and experience a constant sense of discovery. There are no maps, and almost no road signs to direct you. They want you to feel like you are exploring and discovering. Because that makes simply walking around fun. There are lots of little alcoves and cul-de-sacs to find. All of them designed specifically for discovery.
If there were waypoints and road signs that pointed you directly to Space Mountain, there would be a lot of park goers who would miss other attractions.
So, here we have two very different examples of how to use information. Deliberately providing or withholding information can change user experience for the better. Disneyland has had decades to get it right, and for the most part they do.
I didn’t even get close to talking about how they pack ride lines into ridiculously small amounts of space, or provide a show experience while you are in line so that wait times don’t feel as long. I think I will go over those at some point, but these two bits of informational experience design should be enough to chew on for now.