How to Design a Roller Coaster

Written by: Kent Hollrah, Director of UX


“So, how do you design a roller coaster?”

I was home for the holidays in the mid-90s and a curious friend of the family was making conversation. I had been working as a full-time contractor at Walt Disney Imagineering in LA. I was a junior mechanical engineer fresh out of college, working on high-speed thrill rides, or “E-Ticket Rides” in old-timer Disney terms.

“Well, we design something pretty basic and then we iterate,” was my answer. It was true, but that was the short answer. As designers, we pretty much all do the same thing. But there are techniques that help make the process more repeatable. There are things we’ve all learned over time to improve the chances of success and avoid pitfalls.

At Imagineering, the Creative team (and full disclosure, I was on the Engineering team at the time) did something like this:

  1. Research and competitive analysis.
  2. Write a short story for the ride: characters, setting, a narrative arc, scenes, a worthwhile climax and denouement (the $5 word for “falling action”).
  3. Draw a storyboard, turning the story into sketches.
  4. Turn that storyboard into a physical model at very small scale, think Lego-sized.
  5. Use a tiny lipstick camera to see the ride from the to-scale visitor’s point-of-view (which was so awesome).
  6. Draw, sculpt or render details with more and more granularity–vehicle, scenes, characters.
  7. Work with partners to turn these details into reality.

Photo of an Indiana Jones ride model. Notice several vehicles represented in this scene (Model sold on, copyrights reserved)

Each of these steps took time. Each of these steps moved the project forward, giving stakeholders the opportunity to better understand and visualize the final project. While we didn’t use this term, it was essentially prototyping. The process used simple means to validate decisions, test assumptions, learn from test users, then iterate. Always iterating.

So, what does this have to do with digital signage at Four Winds Interactive (FWI)?

Today I work as a User Experience (UX) designer for FWI, designing the software that customers use to design and manage their own signage networks. And the process we use draws heavily from the work I’ve done in the past.  Our internal process looks like:

  1. Embark: Verify we have the right people and process in place for success before we begin.
  2. Discover: Conduct research and competitive analysis to build empathy for our users and their world.
  3. Define: Tell stories, putting our target users in target situations doing awesome things. As a designer, it always starts with storytelling with me. I almost can’t put pencil to paper without first imagining a real person using my software to do real things. The more we can empathize with users and understand their needs and work flows, the easier it is to create systems to help support them.
  4. Design: Draw pictures with increasing granularity. Get that design on paper so we can talk over something concrete. There is simply no way that this first design is going to be perfect. Lose the ego and embrace the messiness that is design. Poke holes in it.
  5. Build: Make things, starting with prototypes and continuing to production-ready code. The closer we can simulate the final product and learn lessons before wasting development resources, the better. Test it with real users. Revise. Then ship it.
  6. Success: Put it out there in the wild. Monitor it via analytics and follow-up with users to see how it is working. Shipping does not mean you are done. We must always be listening to our clients and following them as their needs change and requirements grow.
  7. Support: Keep it alive. Feed it, water it, and watch it grow.

Photo of FWI Head of Design Kelly Byrom reviewing designs with designer Radhi Ladd

See the similarities? Get out there and make something awesome.

And iterate. Always iterate.

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