Lessons from Disney
In 2018, I joined Disney as a designer for what would be a short-lived but insightful stepping stone experience. I worked only seven months for the Mouse, but the lessons I learned there helped shape my goals, design sensibility, and creative vision. This case study is an examination of those learnings and their impact in subsequent roles.
About my role My title at Disney was Experience Designer. It reflected our tendency to blur the line between storytelling, visual design, and UX.
The value of experiential research
My team worked behind the scenes at Hollywood Studios, hidden from guest’s line of sight, with offices accessible only through hidden pathways. Working behind a theme park was, predictably, a uniquely magical experience. My team was focused on building internal-facing solutions, but we considered our true end users to be the guests at the park. Every day, tens of thousands of customers were present just two hundred feet from my desk. Many were having the time of their lives. Some were decidedly not. All of them had unique opinions about the Disney brand and the multifaceted experiential design of the park itself. This access to customers was unprecedented and formative in how I think about user engagement and collaborative design.
Every day, I made a point to leave the office and wander the park among guests for a while. My badge was hidden, so guests assumed that I was visiting, too. I used this time to observe customers engaging with the guest-facing elements of the internal experiences I was designing. I was working on a Cast Member-facing solution for managing wait times at onsite partner restaurants. Cast Members would use the tool to set dynamic wait time expectations for guests browsing dining options in Disney Springs. I used my daily walks to observe how guests interacted with touchpoints relevant to the project...
- How often were guests running through the park to catch their reservation?
- How did customer behavior change when faced with different types of queues?
- When standing near attractions, were guests using their phone to check wait times in the park application?
This access to behavioral observation was critical in shaping my appreciation for designing data-driven solutions. Whether working on UX or branding challenges, I always found new insights from immersing myself in my customer’s environment—it’s the ultimate method for developing user empathy.
The magic of design critique
My team prior to Disney had lacked quality, formalized design critique. Designers collaborated with one another, but failed to sustain dedicated critique sessions for sharpening one another’s work and design instincts. Disney was another story, and thank goodness!
One enormous takeaway from my time at Disney was a deep and abiding appreciation for the role of design critique in the creative process—particularly in a business environment. The team’s critique process itself was nothing revolutionary—it consisted of twice weekly team sessions for examining ongoing work through the lens of different product and business objectives.
From my time at Disney, I learned...
- Done well, critique is the single highest ROI activity for a creative professional. Bringing your problems and solutions, and leaving with new insights that you may have never gained otherwise... that’s priceless.
- Positive feedback is not the goal. The goal is to ship great features and make improve the lives of end users, ideally in a proactively equitable fashion.
- Critical feedback is good—it supports the true goal of crafting a strong experience. In my experience, creative environments that approach critique with this mentality tend to foster the best creative output.
- Sharing at the right time is critical. It’s important to share early and often, but the most fruitful conversations have a solid foundation of understanding the problem space and the unique challenges at hand. It’s the designer’s responsibility to understand all this before sharing in crit.
Blurring the line between brand and product experience
My time at Disney served as an intensive lesson in branding. When I joined, I understood branding at a superficial level—designing there helped me understand that brand encompasses the expansive customer experience, including all of a customer’s active touchpoints and passive influences.
Disney’s ‘customer touchpoints’ are vast — the company operates theme parks around the world, manages the world’s most famous intellectual property, runs a thriving cruise ship business, and shapes global pop culture and media trends perhaps more than any other single organization. The weight and influence of all of this responsibility resonated through my team’s creative process. Despite working on internal-facing solutions, our decisions were constantly shaped by the wider company’s legacy, IP assets, and public successes and failures. In such an expansive organization, teams working in isolation was not uncommon. But no teams worked in isolation from the Disney brand itself. It was a pervasive force in my work, influencing decisions at the macro level (ie, should we build this tool... does it support the mission to craft the happiest place on Earth...) to the micro level (ie, this interface borrows from the retro color palette of classic Disney films... to help evoke a sense of legacy for Cast Members checking guests into our most iconic hotel...).
This exposure to pervasive internal brand methodology, paired with my own fandom of the Disney brand outside of work, helped me understand just how all-incompassing branding truly is. It helped my understand that shaping brand is very much under the purview of product designers. I’ve carried this realization into subsequent roles in my collaboration with brand and marketing designers.