Walt Disney, the world’s first user experience designer

I’m a huge fan of the Walt Disney Park experience, and my family has traveled several times to Walt Disney World and Disneyland. The service we receive is unparalleled to any other vacation spot, and I always return from every visit with at least one extra-special memory.

Why the Disney experience is so consistently good is the same reason that the products produced by Apple are good: a focus on quality, detail and the customer. For Apple, that focus came from Steve Jobs, and for the Walt Disney Company, that focus came from the man whose name is above the door…

Walt Disney was an innovator, a creative force, and a brilliant businessman. But even more than that, I consider Walt Disney the first user experience designer, for reasons I will now specify.

The key to the Disney Park experience is it’s immersive. Everything is designed, down to the exact detail. Cast members are trained on how to treat customers with very specific instructions… even directions on how to wave and smile. What were once orange groves and swampland, there are now virtual worlds that guests can explore. It’s all manufactured, all created with one goal in mind – to entertain and bring joy to visitors.

I first realized that Disney was a user experience pioneer after I was watched a video of Walt introducing “The Florida Project” to the world, which became Walt Disney World. At one point, Walt said that the plan for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (or EPCOT) was that it would be “an experimental prototype that is always in the state of becoming, a place where the latest technology can be used to improve the lives of people.” If that isn’t what UX is in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.

And he said this in 1966.

Design like Walt

In building out the Disney theme parks, Walt Disney and his deign team (which he named Imagineers) established many “best practices” that we user experience designers can follow as well. Here’s some of them:

Make special moments

Walt and his team had a sharp focus on creating a unique experience that guests could not get anywhere else. This focus, on making as many special moments as possible, results in happy (and repeat) customers. Human beings retain bad memories more than good, so providing happy moments results in people revisiting in a desire to relive or recapture that special moment.

Always be “plussing”

Walt was never completely satisfied. He always asked for more, always pushed his team to bring more to the table. He called this “plussing”, incrementally improving details and elements of an experience. It wasn’t “adding more stuff,” which so many companies do… It was making a good experience better. It was making sure the sound effects in the Pirates of the Caribbean was loud enough to rattle the ride participants, it was making sure that the Tiki Birds were able to have dozens of different gestures, not just ten… It was aspirational, and it is the right thing to do, always. Imagine if all designers and developers did their work with this type of attitude.

Give customers options

Walt didn’t design one different locale with the original Disneyland… he made four of them, each with a different theme and different experiences. By doing so he was able to appeal to more people, and also allowed for people to either stay in one “land” for an entire visitor use the “hub” to quickly jump from one place to the other. It may seem obvious today, but Walt came up with the idea and did it first.

Fix things that don’t work

The grand opening of Disneyland was in many respects a disaster. They ran out of food, rides broke down, counterfeit tickets were being used to get into the park… Heck, the asphalt sidewalks had not finished curing in many places. Instead of yelling at people and doing nothing (though I’m pretty sure there was some yelling) Walt met with his team, did a postmortem, and fixed things. We need to follow that example, be self-conscious and objective about our designs, and fix what isn’t working.

Take risks

As briefly noted above, Walt sunk a tremendous amount of his own money in two projects: a full-length animated film called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Disneyland. Both projects brought him to the brink of losing it all, and both projects were huge successes. We need to take risks with what we design, and “aim for the fence” just like Walt did… because great risk also brings great reward.

Hire smart people

Walt surrounded himself with incredibly talented people and let them do their thing… Though he approved almost all the details, he knew that he needed top-notch people to execute his vision and to bring their own perspective to the table. Do the same when it comes to building your team.


Walt innovated both in making films and creating resort experiences, creating the multi-plane camera for film and a complex series of animatronic robots for his parks. He could have gone the safe route and not push the envelope… But he did, and we all benefited. Where can you innovate in your design work? What new ideas or interactions can you bring to the table?

Use data to make things better (and maximize profits)

Walt Disney looked at traffic patterns and sales data from his parks to change things. Selling out of ice crime in Frontierland last week? Double the number of ice crime stands there. Too many people in line for Splash Mountain? Redesign the queue to make sure that the people have extra shade and fans. Walt was one of the first people to look at analytical data to influence business decisions. Like Walt, UX professionals should leverage analytical data to inform their understanding of users and supplement qualitative user research.

Test, refine, then test again

Walt sent friends and family on rides like Jungle Cruise before they opened, to elicit feedback and fine-tune the experience. It’s exactly what we do as user experience professionals… And he did it 50 years ago. Continue to follow his lead.

Keep moving forward

As noted above, Walt famously said that he wanted his parks to never be finished, that he wanted it to evolve and grow over time. He said the key is to always keep moving forward, to make the good better… To continue to improve things, to strive to make things better. This isn’t just a great philosophy for user experience professionals to develop, but for all of us to strive for: Keep moving forward.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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