Beta — We’re reformatting our articles to work with the new site, but this is one hasn’t been done yet; it may contain formatting issues. No need to report this. We’re working on it.

Designing Great Experiences: The Gap Between Activities

by Jared M. Spool
on November 30, 2010

A good map can tell you a lot.

On the map for Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park, the most prominent items are the rides and
the attractions. Six Flags Magic Mountain has great rides and attractions—they have every reason to flaunt them.
It makes sense that’s what the park designers want you to see.

Map of Six Flags Magic Mountain Theme Park

Six Flags Magic Mountain is all about the rides. That’s what you do
there. Upon arriving at the park, you head straight to your favorite
ride. If you’re lucky and the park isn’t too crowded, the line for
rides are short. The idea is to experience the fun and excitement on
your chosen ride then quickly dash into the line of another ride. You
repeat the processes for numerous rides until you are exhausted,
feel sick, or the exhilaration of the rides has worn off.

Disneyworld’s Magic Kingdom Is Not About Rides

The map of Disneyworld’s Magic Kingdom doesn’t feature any rides.
Sure, you can see the structures for Space Mountain and a couple of
others, if you already know the park. However, for most visitors,
those are just decorative elements on a landscape of adventures.

Map of Disneyworld’s Magic Kingdom

The Magic Kingdom at Disneyworld has as many great rides as Six
Flags. Disney doesn’t hide them because they’re ashamed of them. The
map represents their point of view.

For many, the park doesn’t start with the rides, but with the
Character Breakfasts—exclusive little parties hosted by your
favorite Disney characters. When we studied folks planning their
visit to Disneyworld, many started by scheduling the Character

Arriving at the park, their day starts with the breakfast, followed
by exploring every corner of the park. While some have a list of
rides they want to hit, many just follow the paths laid out by
Disney’s Imagineers (the park’s designers). After a full day,
culminating with an exciting fireworks display, the family returns
to their hotel room. Upon entering the room, they immediately notice
the towels on the bed, folded into origami animals. (If the kids
left their toy action figures and dolls in the room, they’ve been
arranged around the origami towel animals, as if they’d all been
playing during the day—just like in the movies.)

Towel Origami Animals

Activities versus Experience

The designers of Six Flags parks created a series of discrete
activities. The park guest moves from one activity to the next.

In contrast, the Imagineers design entire experiences. Each portion
of the park is thought through, created with an iterative process,
until guests have the experiences the park designers are seeking.

Designing for experiences is about designing what happens between
the activities. We’re designing in the gaps, as it were.

Traditionally, when designing products, services, and web sites,
we’ve focused on the discrete activities. What will the user want to
do? Make a list. Create screens for each activity. Then we’re done.

However, when we’re designing for experiences, we research and
design for the time that happens between the discrete activities. We
look for opportunities to expand the design space, connecting the
activities into a continuous stream.

A New Way To Take A Taxi

Like many cities, it can be a challenge to hire a taxi in San
Francisco. You can walk to a busy intersection (hopefully the
weather is nice) then whistle and gyrate until an available cab
pulls up. Alternatively, you call one of the city’s many cab
companies, hoping they have a driver nearby who wants to pick you
up. It’s a frustrating experience that can take 40 minutes or

Along comes UberCab. A new service, with a couple of phone
applications, that changes the activity of hailing a cab into a
delightful experience.

Once a traveler signs up for the service and downloads the client
phone application, they’re ready to get their next ride. All they
have to do is fire up the app. Using the phone’s GPS, the app knows
where they are. Pressing a single button sends out a message to
nearby drivers (who have their own phone apps), asking who wants the
fare. With a single press of the driver’s buttons, the cab is on its
way to the traveler’s location.

While the traveler is waiting, they can enter their destination,
which creates a map for both the traveler and the driver. This helps
estimate the fare and ensures a speedy trip without confusion.

Now the real experience comes. The GPS of the driver’s phone sends
updates to the traveler, letting them know how close they are. If
the traveler changes location (to get out of the weather, for
example), the driver is immediately notified. There’s even a button
on each phone that connects both driver and traveler with a simple

After the ride is concluded, the traveler pays using the phone,
activating the credit card they entered when signing up for the
service. They enter the tip and the transaction is done. A receipt
is immediately sent to their email. There’s even a way for the
driver and traveler to rate each other, to establish their
reputations for future rides.

The designers at UberCab filled in the gaps with useful and helpful
functionality, relieving much of the frustration and adding delight
to the experience of taking a taxi. It’s not an inexpensive
service—fares are a good deal higher than a regular taxi ride—yet
there are customers willing to pay that premium for the better
experience. For them, not stressing over the discrete activities of
the taxi is worth the extra money.

The Cost of A Great Experience

It’s hard to hire a hotel housekeeper who can also make towel
origami. Disney has to pay a premium salary for help that can handle
the job.

They also have to invest in training those housekeepers. After all,
many guests stay 5 days or more. They need to know that many
different animals shapes, to ensure continual delight. (The monkey
hanging from the closet is particularly delightful.)

Add to all that the time it takes to make the animals. Adding the
origami to the workload will reduce the number of rooms each
housekeeper can clean. That means Disney has to hire more
housekeepers to keep up the hotel.

All of that means extra upfront and ongoing costs for Disney. Towel
origami isn’t cheap. Someone at a high level in the organization had
to decide that all this extra cost was worth it.

Great experiences are expensive. They take more research to
understand what the users’ current experience is and what a
frustration-free, delightful experience could be. Creating a great
experience requires connecting parts of the organization that
usually don’t talk to each other. It takes dedication to
bring teams together to support a great user experience.

Choosing to Design Great Experiences

Disney, UberCab, and many others show us it’s possible to fill in
the activity gaps to create great continuous experiences. They’ve
made the investment and produced results that delight their
customers and generate profitable returns. Is your organization
ready to make that investment?

Share your thoughts with us

Have you tried to explain experience design to your co-workers? What’s
worked for you? We’d love to hear your thoughts at the UIE Brain
Sparks blog

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems. You can follow Jared on Twitter at @jmspool.