Technology, Magic and Enchanted Experiences
By Anna Ho, Strategist
Working in tech, I know very well that technology is not a product of magic. In fact, the most impressive technology often stems from a tireless research, design and development cycle that involves way more than a magical incantation and a swish of the wand. And yet, when I found myself immersed in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter on my recent trip to Orlando, I couldn’t help but find myself thinking, as I watched a child wave her IR transmitting wand at a sensor adeptly hidden in a water fountain with a frog spout, unleashing a stream of water at an innocent passerby, wow, it’s magic!
My trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter reminded me that technology, when utilized well, feels like magic.
David Rose, a scientist at the MIT Media Lab, describes everyday objects enhanced or augmented by emerging technologies as “enchanted objects” for their ability to evoke an emotional response within users. In a similar vein, I think technology has the power to transform ordinary occurrences into immersive experiences that feel extraordinary. Enchanted experiences, like that of the Harry Potter attractions at Universal Orlando, leave the user feeling momentarily unbound by the rules of the physical world.
Not far down the road from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the folks at Disney offer their own digitally enhanced experience for visitors of their resorts and theme parks. With the introduction of the Disney MagicBand, a wearable that can be used to control your park admission and FastPass+ entrances, purchase food and merchandise at the parks, and even unlock the door of your Disney Resort room, Disney is focused on producing a seamless experience between their resorts and parks. From a technology standpoint, I found the implementation of the MagicBand impressive. Given the scale and infrastructural complexity of the expansive resorts and parks, it was undoubtedly no easy feat. However, from a user experience standpoint, I found the MagicBands somewhat convenient, but not all that necessary or remarkable, especially since I was not staying at a Disney Resort. I used my MagicBand for park admission and FastPass+ entrances, but ended up using my Apple Watch to pay for all my Disney keepsakes and snacks. Perhaps my expectations were a bit overblown, but I expected the MagicBand to grant me special entry into an inspired world of surprise and delight. I expected it to be my official pass into the magical world of Disney. Instead, all I had was a piece of RF technology strapped to my wrist.
Provided how much data I made available to Disney, everything from my name, birthdate, Disney character avatar, park dates and FastPass+ itinerary, the names of friends and family I was traveling with, my whereabouts throughout the park, and even a visual log of all of my activity thanks to Disney’s PhotoPass system, I expected a much more personalized experience. At the very least, I expected a Disney Cast Member to say to me, “Welcome to the Most Magical Place on Earth, Anna! I hope you have a wonderful time.” Perhaps it was the curse of high expectations or maybe it was just the crowds and the humidity, but I did not find Walt Disney World to be as magical as advertised.
So, where did Disney go wrong and where did Universal succeed in terms of bringing the “magic”? Disney seems to view technology as the solution, when technology should only be one aspect of the solution. Technology, though not a requisite for an enchanting experience, when used strategically, can be used to speak directly to the motivations, expectations, and needs of the user. It’s this understanding of the user that leads to a sense of magic.
Disney used emerging technology to address a practical need of park visitors. However, in my view, they just layered this practical solution onto an existing legacy of fantasy and happiness. Yes, park visitors want to spend less time standing in lines and want an easier way to coordinate activity amongst friends and family, but what Disney failed to keep in mind is that the reason why waiting in line for an hour or racing around the park to get a 2pm FastPass+ reservation for Splash Mountain is especially frustrating is that these tasks break the fantasy. The MagicBands, though cute, did little to distract me from the frustrations of making my way through an incredibly crowded park, especially when my MagicBand was connected to a very hard-to-navigate app.
Unlike Disney, Universal Orlando offers very little in they ways of digital resources for visitors beyond their own hard-to-navigate app. What they do offer, however, is a richly immersive experience in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, enhanced by technology. I would argue that the crowds and humidity were just as bad when I visited Harry Potter world, but it didn’t seem to bother me as much. I waited over an hour for the “Escape from Gringott’s” ride, but time flew by quickly as I got to peruse the various props and images designed to transport me to the goblin-run bank while I snaked my way through the very long queue. Technology was used quite sparingly in the lead-up to the 3D thrill ride, limited to some digital imagery and expertly crafted animatronics. This is true of most of the themed attraction. If it weren’t for the ubiquitous presence of smart phones on selfie sticks, it’s almost easy to forget that digital technology exists once you step into Universal’s recreation of Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley. Here in lies the irony of using technology to build enchanted experiences. When done well, the user almost forgets that technology was even involved. Instead of focusing on things like sensors or network connectivity, the user momentarily finds herself reveling in the experience, saying to herself, wow, it’s magic.
Technology can provide practical solutions, but more than that, technology can help you to tell a story. It can help you surprise and delight your customers. It can help you create engaging experiences that leave your customers feeling as if a bit of magic was involved. If your aim is to craft an enchanted experience for your user, I urge you to see technology not as the end-all solution, but rather, a strategic means to crafting a motivational user experience that has the power to charm your users and surpass their expectations of what’s possible.