Antipatterns Empathy

A Vacation and a Cell Phone Walk Into a Theme Park…

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“I suppose,” I said to my family, “that this is a sure sign that I am getting old, having a hard time relating to the younger generation.”

“No,” replied my 20-year old niece. “All my friends say the same thing. They hate it, too.”

This particular exchange occurred while I was vacationing with my family this past Thanksgiving week. We had just discovered that — despite a distressing amount of preparatory work that should never be required for something called a vacation — there was no place where we could sit down to a simple lunch without a reservation. We were informed that we had to find a place willing to feed us; enter a lunch order on one of our mobile phones; and wait for a time to pick our food up, sit down, and eat.

Imagine our family of seven, all perusing menus on our phones, finally passing around a single phone (I don’t recall how we chose the winner) to enter our orders in the midday sun, taking time to review everything one more time before pressing “submit order.” Then began the indeterminate countdown to lunchtime. How does it feel to spend 30 minutes out of an expensive 8 hour day doing something so “non-value-added?”

Then I looked around more closely, and saw that everybody else was doing the Same. Darn. Thing. Thus began a weeklong journey in lessons of customer experience.

I don’t know that I ever imagined a day when Walt Disney World would find so many ways to alienate its visitors.

I once had rule that I would not touch a computer when I was on vacation. Then airlines began using phones as a primary means of alerting us all to delays, and that rule began to erode. Leading into this particular vacation, it became clear that web sites and phones were going to be part of the daily experience. We needed Magic Bands. We needed the My Disney Experience app. All of this, as it turns out, is part of a concept Disney calls MyMagic+. Part of this is the Disney Genie+ Service. Please read those last two links. They are lessons in missing the point.

As our first day wore on, and my family worked hard (!) to achieve the experiences we desired, I could not unsee the vast amount of time people were spending on their cell phones rather than enjoying real-life experiences.

The afternoon of November 21, 2022 at Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida

These photos were taken on Sunday, November 21, 2022…just hours before Disney’s Board of Directors brought Bob Iger back as CEO. That day led to a week of me pondering: Should a vacation require that you so regularly employ personal technology? How did Disney get here? This is not The Disney Way.

As that evening wore on, shortly after the Iger announcement, I began to recall a passage from the book User Tested: How the World’s Top Companies Use Human Insight to Create Great Experiences:

In the 1950s, smooth-tasting Arabica coffee beans began to rise in price, in part because they were delicate and prone to dying under cold or inclement weather conditions. So, in 1954, Maxwell House, a popular brand of grocery store coffee, began blending Robusta beans into their mix to lower costs.

Not only are Robusta beans cheaper and more plentifully grown—they’re pest and weather resistant.(1). Unfortunately, they taste bitter and harsh. To mitigate this issue, Maxwell House introduced Robusta slowly and gradually so customers could acclimate to the flavor. They performed user tests along the way, asking longtime drinkers of Maxwell House to weigh in, and virtually none of them noticed a difference between all-Arabica and Arabica cut with a hint of Robusta. So they continued to add more Robusta, test among loyal customers, and roll out blends with less and less Arabica.

For many years sales boomed and profits were healthy, but over the decades, sales began to decline. Maxwell House’s U.S. market share in fresh and instant coffee sales fell from 8 percent in 2013 to 6.7 percent in 2019, and in April of 2019 parent company Kraft Heinz was attempting to sell off the once-iconic brand.(2) So what went wrong?

Maxwell House consistently found that longtime customers were happy with their product. Weren’t they doing everything right?

Not quite.

The company was only asking current customers for input, the people who had been slowly acclimating their palates to a Robusta-dominant blend. New customers who tried Maxwell House for the first time frequently hated it, so the company was failing to attract new buyers.

Had they run user tests with both current and prospective customers, they may have avoided this mistake and saved their brand.(3)

When you’re planning a round of user testing, you can’t invite just anyone to the party. And, surprisingly, you can’t always just invite your current customers to weigh in either. Deciding who to consult to get the perspectives that matter to your company requires a thoughtful approach.

Substitute “Disney cast member” for “customer” above, and I think you will get a sense for what I was thinking. This experience was the result of insidiously-introduced Robusta without enough new taste testers to spit it all out. But here we were, Arabica drinkers all…

If it weren’t for my niece’s comment, I would have been surprised to find this set of Google results as I was reading about Bob Iger’s return that Sunday night.

Google search results: “disney world too much tech not enough fun”

Since so much has already been written about Disney’s current state of affairs — prior to Iger’s return, and since — it has taken me three months to decide if I have anything meaningful to add to the canon. The piece you are reading has been in flux during those months; I finally decided here in early February what it was that I wanted to share.

In the teaching side of my career, we spend considerable energy encouraging software engineers to define metrics that can be used to help articulate success or failures in their products and processes. Rarely have I ever seen a team define “reduced user engagement time” as one of those metrics. One smart blogger I found seems to get it, but this particular search will help you appreciate just how upside-down the world can be.

A key goal of every piece of technology (with the exception of games and related experiences) should be: get all users done with it as quickly as possible so they can get back to other things. How many of your own projects actively strive for reduced user engagement?

I’m fairly certain that Bob Iger wasn’t forced to use his phone for anything during his recent visit to the park.. What does “going back to the office” mean for him? I suggest that it means that every employee responsible for UX at Walt Disney World strap on a Magic Band, plan a week at the park, and let their bosses know at the end if working at home was actually more relaxing. I know what my answer would be.

My family has long loved the Disney experience. But this trip left all of us with the same feeling: there is no need to go back as long as this is the way things are. Several post-vacation discussions have revealed that my family is not alone in feeling this way—and let’s not forget my niece’s friends, either. While I have some good memories from my recent trip — it wasn’t all bad — one stands out above all others: a renewed interest in doing everything in my power to ensure that reduced user engagement is a part of every technology initiative I undertake. On top of it all, I will seek vacation experiences that underscore these values.

The notion of vacation involves leaving something; one of those things should be the trappings of technology that we have every non-vacationing day of the year. Walt Disney Land and Walt Disney World both existed for decades before cell phones did. There is no reason other than shareholder return that it can’t operate the way it once did. Disney shareholders would do well to understand the correlation between reduced user engagement and long term shareholder return, lest they find themselves delighting in Robusta while missing out on investments in companies who care more deeply about the human experience.

The best software is the kind you can finish using as soon as possible.

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From Stephen Wolfram, this is simply the most lucid (but lengthy) analysis of how Large Language Models like ChatGPT work:

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