Discussions about Doctorates and Dissertations at UbiComp 2009
Notes from UbiComp 2009

Pins, Positivity and Practices: Hybrid Design at Disney World


The day after the Doctoral Colloquium at UbiComp 2009, I attended a workshop on Hybrid Design Practices. Given my interests in hybridity, design and practices, I was eager to see how these all might fit together, and to meet others with shared interests. The Call for Participants included a number intriguing dimensions, including a field exploration of the public spaces of Disney World, reflecting on interdisciplinarity in ubiquitous computing, and developing a new vocabulary for this area of inquiry. Among the field exploration discoveries I found most interesting were the extensive use of pins (and tags, buttons and badges) and an almost preternatural promotion of positivity throughout this carefully constructed hybrid world.

The organizers who facilitated the workshop - Lucian Leahu, Silvia Lindtner and Karen Martin - led off with a brief summary of the goals of the workshop, an outline of the day, and an invitation to pair off and introduce ourselves to each other, including our favorite Disney character, and then introduce our partner to the rest of the group. I had the good fortune of pairing off with Matt Ratto, who has designed a number of interesting hybrid objects that integrate the online with the offline; in fact, I got so interested in learning about Matt's work I forgot to ask him about his favorite Disney character.

A brief teaser of some related critical - and provocative - work was offered, including Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World, by Kuenz, et al., The Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Dubord, and Simulacra and Simulation, by Jean Baudrillard, complemented by the screening of a short segment of a more positive piece, a video of Walt Disney World from The History Channel's Modern Marvels series. The portion of the video I found most intriguing was during an interview with Bruce Vaughn, Chief Creative Executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, following an observation by the narrator about Walt Disney's successful combination of technology and great storytelling:

The theme park is the first experience wherein the audience can actually walk through the frame into the story, and actually participate in that story in a way that was entirely unique. It went from being a passive experience to an active experience.

Our subsequent field excursions enabled us to become participant-observers in some of the active experiences designed for that environment. Before embarking on our journey, the organizers divided us into two groups - I was with the Downtown Disney crew, the other group explored the Polynesian Village - and presented us with some cue cards suggesting some aspects to which we might attend (Nature, Social, Spatial, Technological), and a outlining a few tasks within each of those aspects, during our investigations.

Hybrid design field study questions Hybrid design field study questions

I was assigned the Technological dimension, which included the following three tasks:

  • Document three examples of how technology links the past and the future
  • Find three examples of how technology bridges work and play
  • Record three points where technology brings out the visible or hides the real

Today is tomorrow's yesterday: pre-allocating memory storage I found that these dimensions - and the tasks within my assigned dimension - were helpful guides for the field exploration. I won't go into all the details here, but will simply note that my conception of "technology" was expanded to include a number of devices that I might not have thought of as technology, for example a photo frame annotated with a story about one's first visit to Disney ... which may in some cases be purchased at the outset of that trip, thereby anticipating or framing one's future memories ... a sort of prospective retrospective device, calling to mind the adage "today is tomorrow's yesterday" ... or the notion of pre-allocating memory storage (in more technical terms).

Nancy: a fountain of knowledge about Downtown Disney However, the most interesting uses of technology - to me - were discovered immediately after getting off the bus, where we were greeted by Nancy, an amazingly helpful cast member (the term Disney uses for all employees) who kindly provided some information about the technologies - high and low - used to cultivate experiences for guests (the term Disney uses for all customers / visitors). At the high end of the technology spectrum, she had a radio / phone with an earbud to communicate with other cast members who were on "downtown duty" (she told us that cast member leaders use Blackberries). What I found most intriguing, though, was the assortment of devices at the low end of the technology spectrum she had at her disposal: maps, brochures, stickers, certificates and a diverse collection of pins to give out to people ... and a few prominent pins of her own. Nancy's name tag revealed that her hometown is Seattle, WA - an immediate connection point for me (I was the only Seattleite in the group) - and she explained that the two other pins attached to the name tag were a 5-year Service Anniversary pin and a "Partners in Excellence" pin, the latter being a prestigious award that is given to a small number of cast members each year based on a process of recommendation, nomination and voting among peers (Jack Spence has a great blog post about the history of Disney name tags that provides far more details about the badges and the supplemental pins), confirming that we were not the only ones who found Nancy to be incredibly helpful in our Disney experience.

In addition to her own name badge and pins, Nancy had a ribbon full of 10 other pins that could not be given away but only traded (and only traded with guests, not other cast members ... and I've since discovered that there are more elaborate sets of rules and traditions surrounding Disney pin trading). But the highlight of the entire Disney experience for me was the discovery of a set of buttons that she had for giving away to guests to promote the ubiquitous theme of celebration. The buttons denoted celebrations for such milestones as birthdays, engagements, honeymoons, anniversaries, family reunions and an "everything else" button for simply broadcasting the sentiment "I'm celebrating".DisneyButtons

45th Anniversary Buttons @ Disney World Nancy told us that cast members regularly acknowledge these celebratory milestones whenever they encounter a guest who is sporting a button, wishing them "happy birthday", "happy anniversary" or simply "congratulations". She also said that guests also sometimes acknowledge other guests' milestones ... a practice I confirmed on our bus ride back, while I was standing next to a seated couple who was celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary ... and sporting "Happy Anniversary!" buttons with "45" marked on them. They told me that several other guests - especially others who were sporting "Happy Anniversary!" buttons - had congratulated them (forming an ad-hoc mutual congratulation society), and they enjoyed the serendipitous opportunities to meet and talk with other couples who were celebrating their anniversaries, especially others who were celebrating 40+ years of marriage. In fact, they said they'd love to have a special dinner where they could get together with all the other 40+ anniversary couples.

I've long been fascinated with name tags, and the way they promote reciprocal self-disclosure. As I'd written in a blog post on this topic several years ago:

HelloMyNameIsScott I spent a delightful hour reading "Hello, My Name is Scott: Wearing Nametags for a Friendlier Society", by Scott Ginsberg, yesterday ... Scott has worn a nametag every day since October 2000 because "it makes people friendlier and more sociable and also helps them remember my name."

I earlier posted a bit about Scott's front porch philosophy; today I want to elaborate on another topic Scott covers: reciprocal self-disclosure. One of the many interesting recurring reactions Scott has encountered is that people are more likely to verbally introduce themselves to him, presumably because he has already visually introduced himself (via his nametag) to them.

This reciprocal name exchange is an example of self disclosure, which is the act of making yourself manifest. The reason people are significantly more willing to give me their names as soon as we begin the conversation is because self disclosure is reciprocal respective to the level of intimacy that you have revealed. In short, when you tell someone something about yourself, e.g., your name, they will be likely to tell you that same thing about themselves.

I decided to experiment with some approachability enhancement - and reciprocal self-disclosure - later in the conference. Since I actually was celebrating my birthday while at the conference, I picked up a "Happy Birthday!" button that I added to my Pathable conference badge and ribbons. As expected, a number of people at the conference - and others I encountered outside of the conference (cast members and other guests) - wished me a happy birthday. And, like the couple I'd spoken with on the bus, I started noticing other "Happy Birthday!" buttons, and found myself almost unconsciously wishing them "Happy Birthday!". I was even wishing couples "Happy Anniversary!" ... and would have expressed other positive wishes about other milestones had I been able to recognize more of the other buttons. Talk about an effective technology for promoting the Disney theme of "celebrate today"!

Disney reserves the right to moderate user-designed tee-shits Another technology that we discovered during the workshop field exploration was the Design-a-Tee system. Guests can use a kiosk to customize a tee shirt with images of Disney characters, Disney slogans and/or user-generated - or perhaps guest-generated - content. In an experiment to test the limits of acceptability within this carefully constrained environment, one of the members of our group designed a tee shirt that started with an image of the Disney character, Grumpy (a character from the Disney movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), in the center of the shirt, and then added the text "Disney makes me" above the image and the text "Grumpy" below the image (i.e., "Disney makes me ... Grumpy"). A receipt for the shirt was then printed out at the counter, and when we asked the cast member there, he consulted with his supervisor, who told us that this tee shirt design could not be used as it violated the acceptable use policy, which stipulates (among other things) that only positive - or at least non-negative - messages about Disney could be used on such shirts. We considered going back later, to generate another shirt, but not ask explicitly about the policy, to see if we could slip one through ... however, we never performed the followup experiment.

[Update, 3 Nov 2009: BBC reports that Feeling grumpy is 'good for you', so perhaps we really should be celebrating grumpiness :-) ]

Hybrid design objects When we returned to the meeting room at the Yacht Club Conference Center to process and share our findings, we adopted a variety of practices to represent and/or implement the results of our field exploration. A few of us started compiling photos from the day, incorporating some of them into a slide deck and others into photo albums (due to time constraints). Others started designing hybrid objects, continuing the theme of subversion that we had begun exploring at the Design-a-Tee store; some of those objects are shown to the right.

The other group had inadvertently discovered some of the local dependencies within the Disney World transportation system when the monorail broke down for a bit. They spent nearly 2 hours trying to get back to the Conference Center from the Polynesian Village, encountering various cast members in various spots, each with limited amounts of information about the best way to proceed ... and finding themselves moving along various suboptimal paths - including some dead ends - in their exploration. They decided to represent their experiences through an experiment in which each drew a map of Disney World, based on their perceptions along the journey. All of the maps contained the remarkable - and landmarkable - geodesic dome of Spaceship Earth at Disney's Epcot Center, but there were a number of interesting variations on some of the other details, reminiscent of Stanley Milgram's experiment on psychological maps of Paris (perhaps an early example of hybrid design).

One of the interesting aspects that arose in this multi-faceted processing of the field explorations was a discussion about whether we were really doing design (we were clearly doing something very hybrid), followed by a related discussion about whether we were really doing ethnography during the field exploration. I honestly don't know enough about either design or ethnography to comment on these debates, but I rather liked Matt Ratto's suggestion that we avoid the design debate by simply using the word "making" to describe some of the work we were doing after our field study.

I don't know if I came away with a better understanding of what the organizers intended by Hybrid Design Practices, but I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to meet and explore Downtown Disney with other interesting people, and to investigate the ways that Disney has designed space, technology and social practices in conjunction with - and opposition to - nature to promote positive experiences among its guests.

[Pictures in header via Flickr and Graham Coreil-Allen and Flickr and pinky09 via Hybrid Design Practices workshop page.]

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