Transforming Unhappy Users: Lessons from Magic Kingdom

I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time in and around Walt Disney World, Florida. I’ve noticed things along the way which seem to be super applicable to building just about any kind of solution — those things are shared here, in the “Lessons from Magic Kingdom” (LfMK) series. This is the fourth entry, see the third entry here.

Note this is specifically about Unhappy Users. Dealing with Bad Actors is a different process which needs its own story.

A common scene in the Magic Kingdom:

  1. Parent buys popcorn.
  2. Parent gives popcorn bucket to the child in the stroller.
  3. Parent collects any other snacks purchased, and begins to move away from the snack stand, pushing stroller.
  4. About 35 feet later, child drops popcorn bucket and starts screaming.

When this happens — and it does, often — a Disney “cast member” will happily replace the popcorn for free. All you have to do is ask. There’s no questioning, no “let me ask my supervisor,” no “let me ring it up in the register and then discount it” — they just give you more popcorn.

In fact, often, the parent doesn’t even have to ask. Disney has a “no crying child” policy which enables cast members to take steps to make sure kids (in particular) are happy.

If the situation allows it, cast members observing the dropped popcorn situation actively respond, often arriving seemingly out of nowhere with a popcorn refill, and a few kind words to the upset child and parent. The negative story instantly turns into a magical moment.

This isn’t just damage control — it was using a negative experience as an opportunity to create a hugely positive experience.

These kinds of transformations do have costs associated with them. You have to replace the popcorn. You have to have to have staff selected and trained to not only be able to sell popcorn, but be able to interact with children in positive, “de-escalating” ways. You need to be seemingly “over-staffed,” because time taken to help a guest like this is time during which that cast member isn’t selling more popcorn.

You don’t transform negative experiences into positive ones by accident, or just because you have one or two good employees. You have to make doing so company policy, and take the steps needed to support execution of that policy.

It takes work to do these things, and on the surface they don’t seem to be part of the “value” the Disney Park product brings. So why do them?

To put it simply, Disney knows that having happy people in the park is part of the product and is essential to providing a good experience to everyone. Leaving the park with a positive impression means curtailing and transforming negative experiences into positive ones whenever possible.

Disney understands that having unhappy guests in their park is a bad thing. Not for the obvious reasons of not selling as much food or souvenirs, or not seeing that family later as a repeat customer. Disney understands that one unhappy guest can have significantly impact the experience for other guests.

Disney knows that negativity can spread. If one family sees another family with an upset child, they will start to wonder why that child is upset. Reflecting on their Disney experience so far in a more negative light may let them find their own reasons to not be happy. Basically, it’s bad that there’s an upset child, but the fact that there is one can “break the magic” for other guests.

Considering how hard Disney works to give guests positive impressions, it’s no surprise they would take the next step and actively curtail or transform negative experiences in order to “preserve the magic.”

Positivity can spread, too. Other guests seeing a cast member take a moment to help an upset child will remind them of how awesome Disney is; and people having fun encourages others to also have fun. Happy guests add to the experience.

The same is true in your product or platform.

Preventing and Responding to Unhappy Users

Unhappy users will pull the whole experience down for others. How you handle unhappy users is critical to the success of your product. Depending on your situation, there are different ways to respond to or prevent unhappy users.

The best way to prevent negative experiences is to constantly work to remove them. Fix your bugs.

Not because they are critical, or because they block certain value-adding functionality. Fix them — even the minor ones — because when they are encountered, they give the user a negative experience. Negative experiences leave negative impressions of your product overall, and negative impressions spread.

Releasing a product with minimal functionality and no defects is much better than releasing a product with lots of functionality and even a few defects.

That said, even if you release something with no defects, there will always be new bugs. Disney teaches us that lesson, too. Disney is always fixing bugs; the parks are under constant revision, both physically and with how they are run day-to-day.

Sure, one could say that a lot of the work Disney does are improvements not defects. That’s just a framing issue.

Disney takes the position that if there is something that is causing negative experiences, it’s a bug, and then they work to fix it. We should do the same.

The parks are never done, and neither are our products. The day you stop trying to improve is the day you start to backslide.

Some users are just not a good fit for your product.

You may be getting income from them, but if they aren’t a good fit, the negative experiences they are having may be impacting your ability to grow towards users that are a better fit. The worst users to have on your platform are the ones that feel like they’ve been forced to be there. Don’t force users on to your product, and always give users a way to exit cleanly. Unhappy users can be very damaging to your happy, good user base. Users that feel like they are trapped may sue you.

It’s okay to tell users they may want to try a different solution. It’s actually good. You’re doing them a favor and leaving them with a positive experience. As the one true Santa Claus says, “the only important thing is to make the children happy.”

If you know a user isn’t going to have a good experience with your product, you should discourage (but not block) them from using it.

Barriers to entry, such as pricing structure, can do this.

Disney leverages their ticket pricing model to encourage repeat visitors over single-day guests. They do this, because they know if a guest can plan repeat visits, they likely aren’t as sensitive to overpriced food and merchandise as a single-day guest. Therefore the chances for negative experiences go down; because the guest is less likely to be worrying about money when making purchases, or carrying their own picnic lunches throughout the park.

Atlassian, makers of software tools used by software development shops all over the world, recently changed their pricing model. Their model is based on the number of users that will be able to access the tool. You can buy access to their tools in two significant ways: Buy access to the tool via the internet, with the tool hosted on their “cloud,” or you can buy the tool as a “host your own” solution, where you would need to install and run it on your own server.

Previously, Atlassian used to sell “host your own” versions of their tools for as few as 10 users. As of 2 Feb 2021, if you want to “host your own” Atlassian tool, you’ll be paying the rate for 500 users. You can still buy small user counts for their “cloud” installs, but if you want to run it locally, you better have a big team and a big IT budget.

Why did Atlassian make this change? Hosting your own development tools is an IT challenge. Small teams have even smaller IT teams, and as such, these customers see a lot of negative experiences when using the Atlassian products.

The experience the cloud offerings give smaller teams is much better, but the price structure did not encourage small teams to move towards the cloud. So they changed the pricing structure, encouraging small teams to move to the “cloud” products, while allowing big teams to retain their big, on-site, locally-hosted, customized installs.

Atlassian’s pricing change does upset the small teams with strong IT teams, but overall it helps ensure that the user base as a whole are having more positive experiences. Their products and pricing now better match the users they are selling to.

Atlassian was able to identify this issue and “fix the bug” because they were able to engage their community and see where the negative experiences were.

The only reason the Disney cast member could react to the dropped popcorn bucket is because they were able to observe that it happened. That response is critical to get right, but with software products, it’s often hard to know if anything bad even happened.

Standing in the theme park next to the guests, the Disney cast members have a lot of contextual information to work with. They can see how everything happened, they can see facial expressions, they can see body language. It’s relatively easy (though training is still needed) to figure out what’s going on, if a response is needed, and what the response should be.

In software, all we have are logs. Usually the logs are bad. Sometimes we can instrument things and capture more information, but even in the most “surveillance heavy” situations, we do not have anywhere near the contextual information Disney gets with physical presence.

For software products, we need to be able to collect useful feedback from the customers themselves. This doesn’t mean “reaching out.” Actively collecting feedback is fundamentally different than giving it room to happen on its own. The trick is to build a community, where discussions can happen freely, without the need to prod or annoy users to have them tell us about their experiences.

If your product is the kind that naturally separates users, it’s critical you set up a shared space where users can interact. In that shared space, you can interact with your users, gain tons of useful information and feedback, and work to transform negative experiences into positive ones.

You need to see the creation, ongoing improvement, and management of the shared community space as part of your product — because it is. It’s a place where people are going to gain negative or positive impressions of your product. The community space isn’t an afterthought, it’s part of the package.

If you don’t set up a shared, user-community space, someone else will.

You won’t be a participant in that space, so you won’t be able to hear the feedback, and you won’t be able to try and transform negative experiences. The first result when someone Googles your product will be a Reddit page full of people complaining about unresolved problems.

If users of your product have set up a community space on their own, your product is incomplete.

Again, Atlassian gives us an example. While some companies will set up a generic forum for users to help each other on, Atlassian has gone further by setting up a specialized forum specifically for asking questions, and they actively participate in the responses. The community enables users to meet up locally, and it’s used to build, announce, and conduct larger conference events.

The community is a serious, first-class effort from Atlassian, just like the software they sell. If your user base isn’t large, you may not need a community setup as mature as Atlassian’s — but that does not mean you don’t need one.

Any team building a product needs to be able to interact with their user community. Not just to gather feedback, but to actively react to transform negative experiences into positive ones.

You need to see the creation, ongoing improvement, and management of the shared community space as part of your product — because it is. It’s a place where people are going to gain negative or positive impressions of your product. The community space isn’t an afterthought, it’s part of the package.

Positive Experiences as Value

The world is full of valuable, useful, but hated tools. Microsoft Office. Every printer ever built. People continue to use these tools due to perceived or actual lack of alternatives, not because they like them.

In a world where there aren’t many alternatives, focusing on delivering traditional “value” when building a product makes sense. In that world, it feels like success is guaranteed as long as you can deliver better value than the most popular competitors. The experience and the resulting impression that users get as they use the product don’t really matter. If they have to print things, they will buy your printer simply because it’s cheaper, not because it’s somehow less infuriating.

Disney World has the slowest roller coasters in Florida. Sea World, right down the street, has three roller coasters that outrun anything Disney has ever built. Sea World focused on delivering value — in this case, speed, height, and excitement of the rides. Sea World is currently closing a couple days a week because they don’t have enough attendance to stay open. Disney only closes for natural disasters. Traditional “value” isn’t the differentiator here.

The challenge today is to build products that users give your users positive experiences they then want to share. That’s “value” now. It means finding negative experiences and figuring out how to transform them into positive ones. It means finding and preserving the magic. It means thinking well beyond requirements and metrics. It means thinking beyond what we used to think were the boundaries of “the product.” I challenge us to go do that.

Co-Founder, Liquid Genius