I was one of the lucky few to visit Dismaland during its five-week run in the UK.  Designed by the artist Banksy and well-chosen artist collaborators, this anti-establishment theme park was dubbed ‘a post-modern bemusement park’. As well as finding some of the installations laugh-out-loud funny and others poignantly tear-jerking, I was struck by how much thought and planning had gone into the design of the whole experience, especially the service design.

Banksy says of the park, It’s an experiment in offering something less resolved than the average theme park. For some reason it’s been labelled as ‘twisted’ but I’ve never called it that. We just built a family attraction that acknowledges inequality and impending catastrophe. I would argue it’s theme parks which ignore these things that are the twisted ones.” He then continues: “It’s modelled on those failed Christmas parks that pop up every December – where they stick some antlers on an Alsatian dog and spray fake snow on a skip. It’s ambitious, but it’s also crap. I think there’s something very poetic and British about all that.”

During the planning process there was a lot of experimentation involved in setting up the park and the visitor experience. The set-up alone took six months and the final result delivered brilliantly on its “brand promise”. 

Emotional peaks

Why was Dismaland so effective? We know from the Peak-End Rule (Fredrickson and Kahneman) that we don’t judge events by the whole experience but by snapshots during the experience. The memory of these snapshots dominates the value of the total experience: it’s the emotional and sensory intensity of the peak moment of an overall experience (plus the feeling experienced at the end) that most influences people.  

This is the part that so many companies miss. They design customer touchpoints as if they are all equal, giving each one the same level of emotional intensity or worse, no emotional intensity at all. This is what I call being “functionally nice”. The design of the overall experience is important. But it’s the design of the emotionally intense “peak” and “end” touchpoints that are critical to how the customer feels when the experience is over.

To be effective, customer experience needs to be designed around three areas:

  1. What is feasible? What can I deliver functionally and technically?
  2. What is viable? What can I deliver that meets my goals?  For example making a profit or developing a relationship over time.
  3. How do I design for the human factors like usability and emotional or sensory effect and intensity?

This last point speaks to a deep understanding of human nature – specifically, what your customers will feel at each interaction. It’s therefore critical to understand it from their perspective, not yours. When we help companies understand their customer needs and emotional responses we use observation together with psychological and ethnographic research methods. You can’t just ask people what they want and take their answers at face value: mostly, we humans don’t often know what we want!

Human factors are also the ones that are so often neglected. It’s precisely a lack of understanding about the need for emotional intensity that leads businesses to offer mediocre service (or Christmas parks to think that “antlers on an Alsatian dog and spray fake snow on a skip” are acceptable).

Toilet rolls and service evidence

The experience can’t be all wows and intensity. Many of the touchpoints need to be “functionally nice” and just there to show evidence of good service. These cues can be so subtle that we don’t even consciously think about them, such as the hotel maid folding up the end of the toilet roll to signal that the room has been cleaned and serviced.  Other touchpoints, on the other hand, need to be designed for the wow factor of emotional intensity, for the peaks and the end of the experience.

What business can learn from Banksy Dismaland

Dismaland delivered on all points with every detail of every interaction meticulously planned, from the frustratingly difficult ticket buying experience to the grim backdrop of Weston-super-Mare. There were very long queues to get in, even with a ticket, then I was met by hostile staff telling me to “have a miserable day”, followed by fake security scanners and by even more hostile “police” with cardboard weapons. The peak experience for me was the very moving Dismaland castle, with its Cinderella crash sculpture surrounded by paparazzi. As an end point, the “exit through the gift shop” was also very memorable, with a strong anti-shopping feel and more belligerent staff telling me to stop taking pictures, get out and don’t come back. 

Even Mark Hudson in The Telegraph acknowledges the quality of the design planning, he says, “With its muddy, un-made-up walkways and ruined surfaces Dismaland gives an impression of cackhanded thrown-togetherness that belies the real money behind it and technical expertise that has brought the whole thing into being, completed just hours before the global media’s arrival.”

I think Banksy is wrong and being very hard on himself when he says: “I think the whole concept might be flawed. By repackaging an art show as an amusement park everybody’s expectations are raised substantially. The branding writes a cheque that the event doesn’t cash.

I loved the experience and the messages conveyed but mostly, I loved the way the “service” at Dismaland was designed and planned. If only businesses could be this meticulous in their service design, rather than settling for mediocrity.

Do let me know if you have any examples of great service design to share.