How Designers Use Ethnography to Create Better Theme Parks

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Participatory museum design

Museum and theme park designers use a surprisingly wide range of techniques to create innovative, immersive, and engaging exhibits. One technique that is interesting in the entertainment context is ethnography. If you’re familiar with ethnography, it’s probably from anthropology. It’s one of the main methodologies that anthropologists use to explore and document other cultures. But it’s helping designers develop a real understanding of who attraction visitors are, how they interact with specific exhibits, and whether or not specific exhibits achieve their design objectives.

Participatory observation

Ethnography as a discipline was refined largely in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century by Western anthropologists. These scientists traveled to live with other cultures around the world, observe and analyze their behavior, and share that knowledge with the wider world. The goal of ethnography is simple. The researcher lives among her subjects, observing and collecting data with as little bias as possible. Specific aspects of ethnography include observing while participating, capturing field notes, conducting interviews, and doing surveys.

Modern ethnography is connected to theme parks in two ways. As the world of anthropology has expanded from living with the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic or trailing behind exotic tribes in the Amazon, it’s grown to encompass applying these same techniques at home. Researchers have written entire dissertations on the ethnography of theme parks, working to understand the behaviors, culture, and experience of theme park visitors. “Ethnographic Experiences in the American Theme Park,” “Chinese Theme Parks and National Identity,” and “Parenting, Courtship, Disneyland, and the Human Brain” are all interesting places to start.

Observing a theme park

The strategies behind ethnography quickly made the jump to market research and marketing in general. Observing customers as they used products or services in real life scenarios provides tremendous insights on how products should be created and marketed. Creative fields, including entertainment design, have also embraced ethnography. You can perhaps learn more about how a specific attraction is working for guests by simply watching how people interact with it than by any other approach. Are they delighted, engaged, scared, or bored? Do children beg for a second go-round on a ride, or can they not wait to get off to move on to the next attraction? Within museums, do patrons approach an unusual installation with a sense of curiosity and exploration, or bypass it because they don’t understand the meaning?

Numerous stories and case studies exist that offer insights into how major parks and branded theme park design firms are using this approach to improve their offers. In one fascinating story, Universal Studios hired a consulting firm to help them better focus on their points of differentiation from Disney. The consultants did deep dive research with 14 families. The team followed the families around, observed their behaviors, and conducted in-depth interviews. In an interview, one of the participants suggest that: “Disney is like sitting by a stream. Universal is like going rock climbing. Both are enjoyable, both are nature, but with one, you’ve got more of that nervous adrenaline rush.” This sentiment beautifully summed up the overall conclusions of the study. Universal’s competitive edge was its ability to appeal to adults and older children seeking a more intense experience.

Brazil Planetarium and Science Museum co-created exhibit

A number of firms also exist that conduct ethnographic user studies primarily for theme parks and other attractions. One describes how a theme park was concerned about rider sickness reactions from an intense ride, so an ethnographic study was done. Based on the data, the team iterated on the rider experience until a happy medium was found between intensity and rider comfort. Other resources explore case studies in the museum industry, such as the Brazil Planetarium and Science Museum project which used ethnography to co-create exhibits with interested learners.

As designers look for ways to better engage and captivate audiences, ethnography is one approach that can help them be more successful. From the development of exhibit content to better understanding the strength and cultural context of a specific park, ethnography allows designers an inside look at the minds of participants. We’re excited to see the continued development of this trend across the design world, and will report on interesting case studies as we learn more.


Leave a Reply

Must Read