Navigating User Interfaces: What Works for Disney World Can Work For You

You can learn a lot from how Disney World guides its visitors to the sights those visitors want to see. And, when it comes to finding your way around, Disney World is probably a lot more complicated than any website you’ll ever build.

DisneyworldVisitors come to Disney World to see the “sights” (the rides, shows, and architectural wonders that make up the park) and, by and large, despite the complexity of the park, visitors succeed in finding what they’re looking for. That’s not by accident — it reflects the time and effort that Disney has spent in supporting how people find their way to destinations (a process called “wayfinding”). The principles that Disney applies work equally well in your application’s user interfaces.

To support their wayfinding visitors Disney World is organized into several lands (Fantasyland, Liberty Square, Adventureland, etc.). Furthermore, Disney expects visitors to know something about that “land-based” organization. Specifically, visitors are expected to know which land any particular “sight” is in. Disney World’s doesn’t expect its visitors to figure that on their own: Disney provides online and printed information about which sights are in which land. In addition, all the guidebooks cross-reference the information they provide against the land-based organization. Generally speaking, by the time visitors arrive at Disney World, they understand the “land” organization and which land holds the sights they’re interested in.

Similarly, you need to organize your website into areas that make sense to your users. While you could invest in a training effort equivalent to the time Disney spends educating its visitors…you probably don’t have the money (or time). Instead, you should figure out how your users think about your site’s content (their mental model) and organize your site around that structure.

“Wayfinding” in Disney and on the Web

I discussed the four steps in “wayfinding” in an earlier column. Translating those steps into a user interface design is relatively straight forward.

For example, the first step in “wayfinding” is orientation: Your users need to know where they are and where the places they want to go is. If you’ve ever been to Disney World you know that each of the “lands” that make up the park have their own special design scheme: As soon as you look around you know whether you’re in Adventureland, Fantasyland or Tomorrowland. You need to make it equally clear to your users what part of your site they are in at any time: As soon as your user sees your page they should know what part of the site they’re in.

Second, your users need enough information/guidance to choose a route. In each of Disney World’s lands there are signposts that tell visitors how to get the other lands. Similarly, your menu system should provide an obvious way to get to any part of your site.

But recognize that your users don’t want the whole route. If you look at the Disney World signposts you’ll see all they provide is the way to other lands; the signposts don’t provide information about the sights within those lands.

Third, support users navigating through your site: As I discussed in my wayfinding post, all your users want is enough information to get to their “next stop.”

For example, at one time navigation systems used treeviews, which allowed users to drill down to their final destination and go directly to it. You’ll notice, however, that Treeviews have pretty much disappeared and that’s because they gave users more information than they wanted. In any part of your site, you just need to let users get to another part of the site.

Fourth, let your users know that they are getting closer to their destination. In Disney World signs appear frequently enough that you are constantly being re-assured that you’re getting closer to the land that you want. When you enter the land, the design scheme changes to let you know that you’re in the right land. Furthermore, the signposts change: They now list the other lands on the site. The work you’ve done in orienting users by making sure each part of your site is distinctive will help out here.

The signposts also include destinations within the land so users can now find their way to the sight they want to visit. Once users arrive at the part of your website they’re interested in, you can provide a navigation system that helps users move around within that part of your site.

As I said, when it comes to user experience design there’s a lot you can learn a lot of Disney World. Perhaps it’s time to visit. Or, the alternative — take Learning Tree’s user experience design course.

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