Design thinking and haunted houses

4 min read
Adam Czarnik
  •  Oct 27, 2017
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I’m obsessed with Halloween and design. When I was a kid, I built a haunted (and grass-killing) maze on my parents’ front lawn. I’m a UX designer now, but for side projects I design large-scale, frightening attractions.

Here’s what I’ve realized: UX design and haunted attraction design have a ton in common—both require creativity, observation of human behavior, and problem solving to design a product tailored to a particular audience.

Whether I’m at my “real job” defining new features based on a customer interview, or I’m listening carefully to audience reactions in a haunted house, I use design thinking to innovate and solve problems.

Related: Why you need design thinking and how to put it into practice

One of the best examples I have is from last year’s opening night of Haunting on the Hill. My crew and I had spent months preparing, but once our first customers arrived we realized they’d face a frustrating UX issue—one bad enough to ruin the whole experience—before they even set foot inside.

The problem

Our plan was to have customers arrive by hay wagon. When they jumped off and got in line, a scary gatekeeper would eventually separate them into groups and explain the rules, and they’d enter the attraction. This entire time, fear would build out of anticipation—from hearing screams and clanking coming from inside the house, from being creeped out by the gatekeeper, and not knowing what was next.

But that didn’t happen.

As people in line moved closer to the entrance, the queue netting swelled, causing the crowd to grow denser. When the gatekeeper emerged from behind the shadows to separate the next group, only a few people were scared—most were frustrated and annoyed because they’d already heard the whole spiel.

As more wagons arrived, this same scenario repeated itself again and again. Enthusiasm turned to eye rolling. People started cutting in line. Even the gatekeeper was frustrated.

The gatekeeper

Clearly, this was ruining the experience. We had to fix it as quickly as possible, so we called an emergency meeting and huddled in a hallway in the middle of the haunted house. Chains rattled, monsters roared, and chainsaws wailed as we calmly talked through this emergency. That’s where design thinking came into play. So here’s what we did:

Design thinking step 1: Empathize

We witnessed our customers’ frustration with waiting in line and heard their feedback in real time. This helped us get into their shoes and feel their pain.  We saw how small things could add up.

Our customers expected a scary, fun experience free of frustration. No matter how good something is, it’s tough to enjoy it if your initial experience is all headaches.

Design thinking step 2: Define

We shared observations, hearsay, and customer feedback and identified 3 problem areas: hearing the rules more than once, too much space for people to stand, and not enough separation between groups.

We never expected our customers to push the queue netting and move so close to the gatekeeper.

Design thinking step 3: Ideate

We quickly sketched out solutions to the 3 problems:

  • First, we’d move the queue back about 40 feet from its original position right against the entrance
  • Next, we’d taper it, causing the crowd to automatically funnel into smaller groups
  • Finally, we’d place a coarse old rope across the now-tapered queue exit where the ineffective netting had been.

Design thinking step 4: Prototype

We created a prototype for our solutions and tested them out the following night.

Something amazing happened: the tapered queue swelled but stayed true. Couples got closer, groups stayed together, and everybody got into single file!

The gatekeeper screamed as she ran up to the rope, totally scaring the crowd. She snarled “HOW MANY VICTIMS IN YOUR GROUP?!”

A young girl responded, “There’s, um, uh, 4,” before turning around and hugging her friend. The gatekeeper undid the rope and led the group towards the entrance.

Now alone with the gatekeeper, that group held each other tighter as she barked the rules and took them inside.

Related: 10 Halloween costumes only designers will understand

Design thinking step 5: Test

We observed our customers with our prototype haunted house queue and witnessed a solution! All of our ideas addressed the major pain points.

No one cut the line, no one was frustrated, and fear built as each group separated from the crowd.

Haunted houses and UX design

Being creative and thinking outside the box is sometimes a challenge in the corporate environment. Thankfully, my passion for haunts has only fueled my creativity, as it inspires me to try a different approach as a UX designer.

In honor of October 1st here's my graveyard set last year at the #bethelpumpkinhouse can't wait until Halloween!

A post shared by Adam Czarnik (@adamczarnik) on

During Halloween season, I lead a double life. Like Batman, my costume changes after hours. In the haunt industry, we transform our customers’ reality and make them experience a range of emotions in the middle of the woods.

I encourage you to follow your own creative bliss by taking on a side project—then see how the added perspective inspires you to design new experiences for your customers. Try applying design thinking to your own interactions and hobbies. Who knows, maybe your golf game or kid’s play date will be your new testing ground for design thinking.

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