LearnWalt Disney was the first UX Professional


writes on January 31, 2011

Oh wait, I said that UX is a bullshit job title 🙂 Well, I just got back from a week at Disney World and I think there are some lessons that Walt and Co could teach all of us about User Experience. I have never encountered a company so completely devoted to the happiness of its customers.

Portrait of Walt Disney with painting behind him with Mickey Mouse standing in a forrest

User Experience can mean many things to many people, but we all agree that the end result is happy users. Unfortunately a lot of people feel that UX begins and ends with their site or app. My visit to Disney World solidified that true UX starts way before someone hits your site and long after they become a customer.

Here are couple things I learned from Walt Disney during my trip, and how you can apply them to your site or app …

  1. Obsess about first impressions: My first interaction with Disney was over the phone when I was trying to figure out the pricing for our hotel. The woman was cheerful – not annoyingly so – but genuinely happy to help me out. It was infectious. The first thing she asked wasn’t logistical details about the date of my visit – she just asked if this was our first Disney trip. When I said it was, she lit up and said they’d do everything they could to make it a magical experience for us. She stayed on the phone with me for almost 30 minutes, patiently helping me out. It was wonderful. If you don’t typically speak to your customers on the phone then you can achieve this same effect by carefully crafting your welcome email, being responsive and friendly on Twitter, and crafting your site copy.
  2. Focus your engineers on the customer: Disney knows that waiting in lines for rides sucks. So they developed this technology called ‘Fast Pass’. You walk up to the ride, pop your ticket into a machine, and it spits out a ticket with a return time. If you come back at that time, you completely skip the huge 40-minute line. It’s amazing. You can apply this to your app by making sure your new features are going to make your customer’s lives happier. There’s a lot of things you could be working or or developing, but how many directly make customers happier? Put your effort there first. (Hat tip to Nick for reminding me about this.)
  3. Pay attention to small details: When we arrived at our Disney hotel, they said “Welcome Home”. It was also woven into the welcome matte to our room. I thought “Oh, that’s cute” when I heard it, but all throughout the trip, it became obvious that they were serious. They worked hard to make our experience as comfy as being at home. You can apply this to your site by designing small touches into your site – providing they are backed up consistently throughout the entire customer experience. One small thing we do is welcome people by their first name as they’re signing up for Membership. Once you type in your name, we pop that in a message that says “Howdy Ryan! Welcome to Think Vitamin Membership”.
  4. Go over the top: We arrived slightly before opening time to the Magical Kingdom one day, and I’m so glad we did. Five minutes before the doors opened this insane welcome parade show started, complete with fireworks, a working steam train, signing and dancing. It made me smile and enforced that they were ridiculously serious about making our visit special. Another example is that they have two parades and fireworks at night every day of the year. Not just one parade, but TWO. It’s completely over the top, but it made us smile every time. You can apply this concept to your site by visually welcoming new users to the site. Why not go crazy and use CSS3 animation really welcome new people to your app? You’re excited that they chose your service right? And you truly believe that you’re making their life better right? Celebrate and bring them along on the journey.

I’ve lived outside the US for 10 years now and I know that a lot of folks think that American-style happy customer service is insincere or patronizing, and I agree. Some of it is contrived and scripted. However, when you are truly happy to help your customers and won’t stop at anything to make them happy, it is the most powerful form of UX in the world.

As a bonus, I took a couple snaps of posters that I’d like to share with you. Disney had posted these around the park on areas they were working on or building. It wasn’t good enough for them to just put up barriers to hide the construction mess, they had to pass on some of their beliefs. I love it.

A quote by Walt Disney that says 'When we go into that new project, we believe in it all the way. We have confidence in our ability to do it right.'

Quote by Walt Disney that says 'The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.'


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38 Responses to “Walt Disney was the first UX Professional”

  1. Tim Carroll on May 10, 2013 at 9:00 am said:

    You’re spot on. I just returned from my first trip to WDW. Spent four days with my family–awesome time. I’ve been home for three days now and I can’t stop thinking about it. As a UX professional, I’m not easily impressed. I also know how hard it is to get full buy-in across an organization and to get it right. But the lengths they take to ensure a positive and memorable experience is unlike anything I could ever imagine. How they do it so well escapes me. I could offer dozens of examples that demonstrate how and why they got it right, but I’ll just say that I’m genuinely awestruck at their UX commitment (obsession) and execution.

  2. I agree. Its easy to be cynical about American style customer service. But that’s usually after experiencing a poor imitation of it at a UK restaurant, for example.

    In my experience, the service/experience you get in the US feels genuine, and Disney are the masters of this.

  3. Anonymous on February 3, 2011 at 5:57 pm said:

    I have ‘issues’ with Walt Disney and therefore everything the Disney company has become. Their only saving grace in my book is Pixar.

  4. Did you know that Walt did research to figure out how long someone would walk with trash before throwing it on the ground? Notice in the Magic Kingdom how, for the most part, there is a trash can about every 50 feet.

    I worked there as an intern Summer ’99 … the place really is a customer service marvel. Another cool note … anyone (and I mean ANYONE) in the park is empowered to provide you with whatever you need. Spill ice cream on your shirt? They can give you a voucher for a new shirt from the gift shop.

    • Ha, that’s awesome. I didn’t think about that.

      It was astounding how clean the place was. You know how there’s always water
      on the counter tops in bathrooms normally? Not at Disney. The cleaners walk
      around with squeegees and wipe it off continually. Crazy.

  5. There is a book called ‘The Experience Economy’, which I recommend all UX folks read. In it the authors say that the concept that we now all call the user experience started with one man – Walt Disney

  6. Samuel Seguro on February 1, 2011 at 12:36 pm said:

    Never…I am a User Experience Consultant… and the word “Customer” does not exit in my vocabulary; only ‘users’

  7. Having been to Disney World Resort three times in 2010, I have to agree that Disney is one great company who excels in User Experience. I’ve also been on a Disney Cruise, which was an amazing experience as well. I just wish that a lot of the websites we come a crossed would apply the same concepts, perhaps then the internet would be a better place.

  8. What a great reminder of what UX is all about. When they call Disneyland/world “the happiest place(s) on earth”, they really mean it. And this is accomplished in spite of the innevitable crying themepark kids. Thanks for pulling out the details of just how they manage to pull this off.

  9. Excellent post!!Just out of interest which hotel did you stay in??

  10. Having been to Disneyland Paris, I agree with what you say about the people at Disney. However, their websites are so bad they make me want to cry. I even emailed them asking for an old-school paper brochure because I couldn’t access the info on their website, but none turned up. 🙁

  11. I went this past fall, and thanks to all of the construction, there were a number of those quote signs around the park. As I read each one, I was struck with how much these saying could apply to the business of making great websites and applications.

    I didn’t think to take any pictures of them until towards the end of the visit, but I would love if Disney were to consolidate these in one place and put them online.

  12. I went this past fall, and thanks to all of the construction, there were a number of those quote signs around the park. As I read each one, I was struck with how much these saying could apply to the business of making great websites and applications.

    I didn’t think to take any pictures of them until towards the end of the visit, but I would love if Disney were to consolidate these in one place and put them online.

  13. Anonymous on January 31, 2011 at 2:43 pm said:

    Wow, no doubt that dude was jsut cool like that!


  14. Very inspiring, you must look your client as a friend, a friend who pays your bills and allow you to have fun 🙂

  15. Great way to put it all into context, Ryan. Walt was the reason I got into design – my first book (besides Curious George, of course) was a HUGE coffee table book on Disney, back in the early 70s.

    I think Walt would laugh at all of us, using terms like “User Experience, Interaction Design, Usability” ad nauseum…trying to figure out the science behind making something pleasurable, fun and inviting. It amazes me that still, even when we know the “science” behind it, no other organization delivers like Disney.

    Walt understood that people want their own great experience, and most organizations stop there, and they do fine. But as you elude to, Walt went beyond, and understood that as parents, we want the experience for our kids to be exponentially more positive. Something no other organization then, or since would or could do.

    That’s why he hit a grand slam…he decided he’d be the one to deliver on that simple ideal.

    It’s amazing, when someone steps up with the cahonas to risk it all for something bigger than one’s self, how others follow. That momentum hasn’t slowed for over 50 years now.

    We all need to take risks like that in life to achieve the ideal. Life’s short, brother! Deliver the best, or join someone’s team, like Walt’s! 😉

  16. Nice observation Ryan – I concur! This exact point was the subject of a talk I gave at the IA Summit in 2009. You might like to check out the slides (http://www.slideshare.net/reduxd/creating-magic-kingdoms-9-lessons-from-disneys-imagineers-1191216)

  17. Having been to both “main” parks in Orlando in the past, I’ve always found Disney World to also be incredibly focussed on selling merchandise. For most of the year, Orlando is pretty hot. So it came as something of a surprise to find that most of the Magic Kingdom is exposed to the elements, with very little shade. Well, unless you go into one of the many shops, that is.

    Compare this with Universal/Islands of Adventure; trees (and therefore shade) aplenty, and even areas with water mists to keep you cool. They push the merchandise pretty aggressively too, but I can’t help that it was a very conscious decision on Disney’s part to make the park open to the sun to help nudge people into the shops. A clever business decision? Yes. But one that always left something of a bitter taste in my mouth…

  18. interesting, as always details are key. your organisation certainly is up there with the best in regards to costomer service. regards

  19. The thing Disney do best is tell stories, they don’t build rollcoasters or log-fumes, its all about the stories. Storytelling is the key.

  20. You might also find this article from the LA Times on how Disneyland is kept clean interesting – http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-cover-disney-20100502,0,5574120,full.story.

  21. See I’m not so sure. I think Disney has nailed the market efficiencies of the theme park and the tone of voice necessary to get people coming back. No doubt they have really smart people in their customer experience team but I think a lot of that came together long after Walt Disney died. In fact he died before Disneyworld opened and his brother, Roy, died 3 months after it opened.

    I also have a bit of a problem with the way their park staff are compensated and employed, particularly those in costume. There’s some quite disturbing stories around of labor laws being skirted, horrible working conditions, etc.

    Disney just doesn’t sit right with me on so many levels – but I definitely think I’m in the minority on that one.

    • I’m sure there are a ton of ways they can improve their internal processes,
      but the overall result for customers is amazing. That was my main point –
      it’s all about the customer and how they’re affected. You walk away from the
      park smiling and amazed. I wish more companies were like that.

    • Interesting that Roy died so soon after it opened. I knew Walt didn’t live to see it open, but I figured Roy was around for a lot longer. Sad.

    • Disneyland opened much earlier than Disneyworld, thus they were around for a while after Disneyland opened.

    • actually, their customer experience stems directly from Walt and his team he had assembled for his movie studios, theme parks and more during his lifetime. he was the classic showman and knew how to motivate people; both his employees as well as guests to his parks, movies, etc. his core focus was on storytelling and the rest would grow from there. if there was no story, there is no reason to move into production and that ethos has continued throughout today with Jon Lasseter now holding a large portion of that mantle.

      Walt died in 1966 from cancer and despite Roy’s plan on retiring he wanted to see his brother’s plans fulfilled. despite that, the park as built was not what was originally envisioned by Walt. he had planned on a much larger prototype city that encompassed the best of manufacturing, education and public works and that is why he gained such powers from the state of florida as they readied construction.

      Roy scaled back production after Walt’s death from a much smaller city to a much bigger disneyland styled park that has continued to grow over the past 40 years.

  22. You might also like this article from the NYT, it shows how they devote a lot of effort to queue/crowd control: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/28/business/media/28disney.html

    A little off topic – the feeling part of me says “Yay, they care about people’s experience!”, but the thinking part wonders how much else they covertly manipulate. Still much to be learnt from them, I agree.

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