Why Beautiful But Dumb?

Good information architecture balances a lot of competing elements: design, business needs, marketing needs, stuff the CEO wants, things the tech department wants to try out, and user needs. Without IA ,the web, and the world, tends to start drifting towards what looks cool (the beautiful part) in favor of being smart (hence the dumb part).

Monday, March 21, 2011

Fumbling Towards the Dining Room: Why I kept getting lost on the cruise ship

I recently took a short cruise on Disney’s newest ship, the Dream, to celebrate a family member’s birthday.  My overwhelming take away from the trip was how impossible it was to navigate the ship.  I usually have a fairly good sense of direction, but on the boat I constantly felt as though I were lumbering around in the dark, trying different stairwells and elevators, in the hope that I might eventually end up somewhere near where I intended to go.  My husband and I routinely found ourselves standing outside an elevator bank arguing about whether we should turn right or left.  When attempting to follow other family members across the ship we frequently found ourselves separated, one member of family having taken a wrong turn and assumed the rest of the family was following along.  We are actually a family who are extremely interested in map and thinking and navigating (we include an urban planner, a computer scientist and an instructional designer, plus me) so the fact that we kept getting lost was notable.

Still, I wanted to be sure that this wasn’t just me, or just my family, or just this particular boat, so I did some research and discovered that there are actually entire forums discussing how hard it is to find one's way around assorted cruise ships.

Cruise ships face an interesting information architecture and wayfinding challenge in that every few days an entirely new population gets on board and all has to learn, simultaneously, how to get places, including how to get to the places they eat and sleep.  Since this was a short cruise (four days) nobody on the ship had enough time to learn how to easily navigate around, so the entire vessel was filled with tired, hungry people wandering around saying things like, “I think we need this elevator,” or, “Where is a map?”

Given the challenge of orienting an enormous number of people in a short amount of time (this particular ship carries 4000 passengers)  you would think that the company would have made some attempt to provide signs, maps, or other wayfinding tools, but these were conspicuously absent.  Royal Caribbean has taken steps to help passengers find their way around their newest and largest ship, but not Disney. 

The cruise experience left me with many questions:

  • Why was it so hard to navigate the ship?  The only place I didn’t feel turned around on the boat was on the top deck.  Why was that?

  • Why didn’t Disney try to help their passengers find their way around the ship?  Sometimes it felt like the ship was purposely designed to confuse you, including one area of the ship that was only accessible by one elevator, which meant that if you didn’t magically end up in that elevator you had to get off on the 11th floor and change elevators.  Was there some benefit to having customers wandering around the ship lost, as there is in the supermarket?
  • And most important to my line of work, I remembered that the website was also very poorly architected, despite the fact that the company insisted that all bookings be done on line.  The result was that I was unclear on what I had booked, what needed to be booked, and was missing key information about the ship like whether there were babysitters and what the attire was for dinner.  Was Disney just a company of bad information architects?

Over the next few weeks I am going to explore each of these issues in a blog post, so stay tuned.  And in the mean time, happy wayfinding.