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).

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Walt Disney: Information Architect?

So what happened when Disney sat down to design the wayfinding component of the cruise ship?  Was the wayfinding team just all on vacation when the Dream was being designed?  I’ve been researching answers to these questions over the last few weeks, but have run up against a wall.

My initial theory was that Disney is just a company who puts design over usability, resulting in a beautiful ship on which passengers can spend many hours wandering hopelessly through assorted passageways trying to find the restaurant.  This theory also made sense when it came to my interactions with both the web site and the customer service team.

Someone at Disney has quite clearly made the decision that all cruise-related bookings occur online.  This would be fine except for the fact that my entire family found the site impossible to use.  We had simple questions like: is there babysitting available on the ship?  And, if so, how do I book it?  And, if not, how do I reserve time in the onboard nursery?  And also, can we see the restaurant menus to help us figure out where to eat?  It was so difficult to get any of these questions answered that three of us independently called customer service to try to plan our time on the ship.

Customer service turned out to be equally unhelpful.  We each had the experience of sitting on hold for at least 15 minutes (which, I feel the need to point out, means you spend 15 minutes listening to an infinite loop of Disney’s greatest hits, and the rest of the week trying to get “Bippity Boppity Boo” out of your head) only to be told by a customer service representative that everything needed to be reserved online and there was nothing they could do to help us.  And by the way, they didn’t have babysitting.

But once I began to research this theory I came across this article, which makes a compelling case for the fact that Disney as a company is actually quite interested in ensuring their visitors can find their way around places.  Walt Disney, it seems, was an information architect at heart.

My second theory was that perhaps the ship was designed to purposely confuse guests.  This is the case with supermarkets, which have been designed to ensure that customers spend more time wandering the aisles, in turn providing more time for impulse purchases.  But there isn’t any clear benefit to having guests wandering around a ship.  If anything, it could be dangerous if the ship hits … oh I don’t know … an iceberg, and you can’t find your way quickly to your muster station and then you’re stuck floating on a plank with Leonardo DeCaprio.

So why did the Dream and the Disney website fail so miserably?  Did they just get so excited about building a full-scale water flume on the ship that they forgot about maps?  Is there just some kind of fundamental misunderstanding about wayfinding at Disney that makes them good at designing amusement parks but bad at designing ships and websites?  (Thought really, it looks like the website was designed by an Imagineer with little to no knowledge of basic information architecture principles.) 

I’ve emailed several Disney people and will post any responses I get.  In the mean time, please feel free to submit your own theories.