What Can Mobile App Designers Teach Us About Theme Parks and Entertainment Design?

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

theme park guests use phones

People walk around tethered to their smartphones and tablets. They’re just as likely to be playing a game as checking email or looking for restaurant reviews. Games represent 21.8% of the 100 billion plus apps downloaded from the Apple App Store since it opened. More importantly, another recent study revealed that users find games the second most enjoyable app category to use, immediately behind socializing with family and friends. There’s just something addictive about apps. What are some of the core principles of video game design at play in these products – especially in short, addictive apps? How can those ideas be applied to other areas of entertainment design?

Games in Theme Parks vs. Game Design Principles

Much of the discussion around the connection between games and theme park design is centered on how games can be used in parks. Today’s theme parks are experimenting with the gamification of attractions, releasing branded apps with game elements, and hosting in-park scavenger hunts. As users want more integration between their technology and real world experiences, theme parks and other venues are iterating mobile experiences at a high rate. But there’s a deeper application of these ideas for theme park designers. The very design principles that make games addictive can be used to increase participation and immersion in the theme park environment.

theme park design for distractions

Design for Distraction

In an interview with Fast Company magazine, the designer behind the addictive app Polar highlighted the importance of designing for distraction. “Effective mobile designs not only account for these one thumb/one eyeball experiences but aim to optimize for them as well,” he writes. At first glance, it can seem that there is a core disconnect in the different design objectives at play. App designers are working to capture a sliver of people’s attention while they multi-task doing other things; entertainment designers are fighting to hold guests’ attention completely and pull them away from their devices.

Yet in reality, both sets of designers are working for the mindshare of stressed people seeking escape. The idea of designing for distraction is powerful. It’s important to capture a guest’s attention immediately, and use story and immersion to draw them in. What begins as an intriguing queue with a deliberate soundtrack slowly relaxes the mind, step by step, until a guest is completely engaged in the story. Theme parks and apps both use small details to refocus the attention on the experience they’re creating.

mobile app design for theme parks

Employing the “Skinner Box” Principle

Casinos are a growing business around the US, and one report suggests that slot machines actually account for 70 – 80% of casino revenue. On the surface, it’s easy to assume that it’s the soothing repetition of pulling the arm, hearing the electronic whir and the predictable payout that draws people back again and again. But in reality, that’s not it at all. E.B. Skinner did a series of psychological experiments in the 1960s where he put pigeons in a box. When pigeons pulled a lever, a piece of food would be dispensed. The predictability was soothing. But the pigeons really went wild and began to pull the lever more often than ever when food was dispensed at random. It was what one author called the perfect “blend of tension and release.” It also turns out that pigeons are a great predictor of human behavior!

Life today is fairly predictable for most people visiting theme parks: work, school, relationships, the world in general. There’s a kind of stability and monotony that guests are seeking to break away from. By incorporating the Skinner Box principle, game designers have made slot machines highly addictive. The same idea can be used in theme parks. Variability is a trend that’s showing up more and more. Guests want to be able to visit an attraction multiple times without knowing what to expect, or while having a different experience from their friends. This approach increases the draw for visitors and also can grow revenue potential for parks.

Create Environments to Stimulate Interactions

The whole idea behind apps is creating a virtual environment that stimulates the mind and engages users. App designers are masters at developing digital worlds that both immerse users and create an “addictability factor.” The same principle can be applied to the theme park environment. One study showed that apps had the highest customer retention when they got people to play immediately; otherwise, they forgot the app was on their device.

In the physical context, it’s all about immediately grabbing the attention of your guests. Can you use games, actors, and other theming elements to provide immediate feedback to guests? Using ongoing stimulation and feedback – combined with the tension and release cycles described above – creates an unforgettable experience.

On the surface, the worlds of theme park design and app design don’t necessarily have a lot in common. But when you look at the audience and its underlying motivations, there is a significant amount of synchronicity. What’s more, each experience is the culmination of countless little details designed to coax out a specific response. In that way, the same general principles and psychological tricks can be applied to grip audiences and ensure that they keep coming back for more.

 Images sourced courtesy of Attractions Magazine, Sports Planning, Biz Journals

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