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Blog header image which says, "Why go mobile?", in front of a colorful background.

Why go mobile?

In November, I met many new contacts in the amusement industry in Orlando at the IAAPA Attractions Expo, an annual trade show which is the biggest such event in the amusement business. Some of my contacts there had had their websites redesigned to be responsive or mobile-friendly. Others had not yet but had plans for this to happen, and others were unsure about whether or not they needed to do this – or were convinced that they should not.

I’ll begin by describing general reasons for any site to go mobile. I’ll conclude with reasons why sites with a relatively small number of prospective customers should go mobile too.

More users are accessing the web from mobile devices than ever before.

 

Even a year ago, many countries had more mobile phones currently in use than they had people. The distinguishing feature of smartphones over earlier feature phones is that they have operating systems.

But, as of May 2013, 63% of adults who owned any cell phone used it to go online, and 34% of those users went online using mostly their phones. This percentage is substantially higher in upper income brackets, such as those of park executives. (In fact, I saw several park executives doing business on their smartphones at the recent IAAPA Attractions Expo.) Now toward the end of 2014, these percentages have only increased.

Users spend most of their smartphone time using apps, which are designed for their phone.

Several months ago, Nielsen research estimated that adults who use Android phones or iPhones spend 65% more time using apps on their phone than they did two years prior. An app’s design will typically be tailored for the device displaying it, such as an iPad or iPhone. I have occasionally seen iPhone apps display on my iPad as though they were on a giant iPhone instead, but these were commonly development builds rather than proper releases.

The only times I’ve ever seen an app give me a screen that was not optimized at least for a mobile device were when the app opened a webpage in my phone’s browser and it wasn’t a mobile-friendly webpage. Users find the experience of being taken from a mobile app to a mobile site jarring enough, but being taken to a desktop site on a mobile device is an even more jarring experience that forces users to pinch and zoom to learn anything meaningful from a webpage.

The smaller mobile screens cause users to have more trouble understanding what they are reading. Jakob Nielsen reported that many mobile users were more “visibly angry” when confronted with a page full of content that they could not understand than desktop users were. They were less interested in reading whole news stories and just wanted to grasp a story’s main points and move on.

Mobile is taking on a more significant role in the workplace.

In a piece for TechCrunch, Roger Lee observed, “Some 95 percent of knowledge workers own smartphones, and they reach for them first to do all kinds of tasks – from email and document sharing/management to meeting planning and videoconferencing.”

The reach of mobile is rapidly extending into industries which did not think they would have it. The increased mobility of workers across industries may contribute to this. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median number of years workers have been with their companies in 2014 is 4.6 years. Workers ages 55 to 64 had been with their companies an average of more than three times longer than had workers ages 25 to 34.

Switching industries is also quite likely, at least for workers with technical backgrounds. Many job postings and hiring processes in software development stress having skills in particular programming languages and frameworks and consider domain knowledge or experience in a particular industry to be a “plus” or “nice to have”.

My career attests to this. It began in retail while I was in college. After graduating, I worked on a large financial application. After this, I switched to the satellite industry and then to the call center industry. The reason for switching industries so often was that this was where jobs were available in my area. At the time, I didn’t want to relocate. When given the chance to start my own company, I considered what I most wanted to do for a living and for whom. This led me to the amusement industry a little over 2 years ago.

So don’t be surprised if our industry’s composition drastically changes. The amusement industry contains dream jobs for many people. Those who enter an industry mid-career bring their experience, processes, and expectations from one or more previous industries.

Parks’ sites are increasingly going mobile.

At the IAAPA Attractions Expo, I spent four full days on the trade show floor, networking with people all over the industry. I was able to meet several of my clients and other recent contacts. And I realized that the busiest booths at the show often belonged to ride companies. Trade shows are their most major setting for landing new deals. Often, these deals happen with parks or park chains.

More and more amusement parks have seen the business case for making their site mobile-friendly. In response, they have redesigned their sites to be responsive or have created new, separate mobile sites. As trends in the internet catch on, users’ expectations change accordingly. Companies expect their business partners and prospective customers and vendors to adapt to changing trends in technology. If you run a ride company that makes innovative rides and your site doesn’t look innovative, that is a poor reflection on your brand.

If your amusement park, ride company, or consultancy has not made their website mobile-friendly, why not?

Mobile forces you to focus your selling on the most important aspects of your product or service.

Responsive design problems are typically tackled in one of two ways.

Top-down, or desktop-first, design approaches date back to web design’s less complex, desktop-only days. A page that is designed top-down will be prototyped in a tool like Axure RP or Balsamiq, or comped in a tool such as Photoshop, to have its full desktop-only layout. Designers traditionally build desktop-only sites using a grid with either 12 or 18 columns on it. This allows a good deal of flexibility on a desktop screen, but mobile becomes an afterthought: often, content just keeps getting pushed down the page or hidden as less important.

Bottom-up, or mobile-first, design approaches involve first thinking about how a site should look on the smallest screens. This forces the designer and the client to think of the site as a billboard that users are reading along a highway – where they only have a couple seconds at most to understand a site’s message and make a decision. Consequently, most nonessential content is stripped out of a mobile site designed with a mobile-first approach. These page layouts tend to not be very busy at all, and in working their way up to larger screens, designers are able to use progressive enhancement techniques to increase the wow factor on devices that can handle it.

Desktop users benefit from responsive designs too.

Mobile-first design helps simplify a site and make the way through its sales funnel clearer. Progressive enhancement allows the mobile experience to be enhanced appropriately while maintaining the site’s “billboard” mindset. This results in sites whose purposes are easier to remember.

B2B sites that offer a wide range of products or services have to think about how to best present those for mobile users. User experience designers may use card sorting studies so that users can help organize the products in a way that makes the most sense to them, simplifying their journey through the site. These studies influence the whole structure of a website or web page, so they benefit mobile users and desktop users alike.

A mobile site eliminates several hurdles present in developing native apps for mobile devices.

The first is on the business side: the cost to develop and maintain an app that works for all smartphone users. The vast majority of smartphone owners use either an iPhone or an Android phone, although a smaller percentage use Windows phones and other kinds of devices. Each of these types of phone uses its own operating system, requires different skills to develop apps for it, and would therefore require developers (or, depending on the size of your app, development teams) with different skills in order to develop and maintain it.

Development teams that lack the budget and resources to develop an app for every type of phone counteract this by focusing all of their efforts on one platform – most commonly iOS, the operating system used by iPhones and iPads. But this leaves users of other platforms wondering if an app will ever be available for them. If they don’t have an app they can use, they are forced to interact with your brand digitally using only a desktop site. This is at best an inconvenience – switching devices to complete their tasks – and at worst, lost sales for you from an entire range of users.

If you had an app that worked for all smartphone users, you still would not be guaranteed a return on your investment. You would have to design your existing site and your App Store listing in a way that convinces users to download it. From there, you would need the app’s onboarding process to ensure that users will use the app that they have downloaded. And you would need the app itself to be useful enough to users to get them to use it on an ongoing basis.

Each of these is a big hurdle for any app in the App Store. If you’re committed to having an app designed – or if you’re still not sure about what benefits you will get from a mobile app versus a mobile site – the next post is for you.

Why go mobile if your potential customer base is small?

IAAPA is known as a trade show which puts smaller businesses in the amusement industry on a relatively equal footing with its bigger names. While smaller companies may not have the largest booth in the most prime location, they are still respected organizations that make a positive difference in the industry year after year. Some smaller organizations even sponsor the trade show.

Still, hiring a UX designer is not cheap, and in an ideal world, a UX designer would not work alone and be fully responsible for both designing and building a website. The assigning of design and development tasks to at least two separate people makes a project more expensive. Even if they individually make less money from a project because less of their time is involved (assuming a time-based or fixed-price pricing method), they do require time to work with one another on the project. For example, the designer will need to meet with the developer to make sure a proposed change in a design is technically feasible. Therefore, while the cost to a client is not the same as hiring two contractors for the life of the project, it is still more than the cost to hire only one.

However, there are still reasons to go mobile even if your customer base is small.

B2B projects typically involve more money.

Many ride companies produce relatively few projects per year. Companies who work on the most expensive ride projects often get a great deal of business from trade shows and have a waiting list. So what would be in a redesign for them? They may be able to use a UX design project that focuses on mobile as a way to learn more about their prospective customers just as much as a way to provide their prospects with another way to engage. And in utilizing mobile touchpoints, the value adds up. If you want to land more projects and use your site to this end, the ROI is substantial.

It provides an opportunity for scaling your business.

Similarly, more work allows a company to hire more employees and contractors. It allows the company to become bigger. For example, some companies in the amusement industry recently mentioned at IAAPA’s education sessions that they use mentorship to develop the next generation of leaders in the attractions industry. Some ride companies have formal programs for allowing young ride enthusiasts to pursue their dream jobs designing rides. If a company has more work, these programs can be helped.

It reinforces that you provide good customer service.

This September, Salesforce reported that how the customer feels they are being treated influences 70% of buying decisions. Customer service is well-regarded as important in retail and in the amusement industry, and it plays a pivotal part in how people perceive brands.

Digitally, investing in usability is a form of investing in customer service. Organizations want to maximize their ROI from their digital products. To this end, they design their sites to optimize conversions, email their lists about new products, and often employ live chat teams to answer customers’ questions about products. Companies that were previously not known for good customer service have had to invest in making their sites more usable because not doing that costs them sales.

Similarly, giving users a site that works on their devices is a form of courtesy. Users come to their site with the mindset of, “I want to learn more about this company and perhaps buy from them.” Giving them a desktop-only website that is a huge inconvenience to navigate and read, or telling them outright that you won’t serve them on the device they are using, gets rid of their goodwill and often causes people to leave your site – possibly for your competitor’s.

It shows that you want the sale, by meeting prospective customers where they are.

Imagine that you are in a mall with several large department stores. Both stores have products that you are interested in and advertise that they won’t be undersold. They are giving you the same items at the same price, and you are the same distance away from both.

However, one store is known for how its customer service gives adequate attention to every customer. If a customer is indecisive, experts are on hand – but not annoying – to help them choose and buy the item that is best for them. They honor customers’ requests if they don’t want to be bothered while they are shopping, but they converse with the customers who want that and are helpful to anyone who has a question. Their staff sets their sales floor before the store opens each day, and throughout the day, they make sure that the floor is neat and that all merchandise is easy to find. They use good customer service to remove barriers

The second store has employees that are just punching the clock. Their sales floor is ill-prepared; sizes aren’t in order, and the right item in the right size could be in any of several different areas of a department. Its employees are indifferent, spending most of their day talking with one another or texting their friends. Customers are expected to fend for themselves. If they look in one stack of clothes for a pair of pants in their size and their size is not in the pile, they pick a different style or leave the store thinking that the store doesn’t have their size: a lost sale.

A website that is mobile-friendly and designed with a user-centered approach says, “I care enough about you to present myself carefully and meet your needs. If you’re not sure about something, don’t be afraid to ask. I won’t make you fit your questions into my format in order to get a helpful response.”

A website that is not mobile-friendly or not designed with a user-centered approach says, “I really prefer users who use this other kind of device. If you have a question, pinch and zoom and maybe you’ll find what you’re looking for. But I’m not promising that I have it, and I don’t know where anything is. Good luck!”

What’s next

Later this week, I’ll explore reasons why you should consider a mobile site versus a native app.

Work with us

I would love to discuss new design or evaluation projects – especially if I saw you at IAAPA, but even if I didn’t.  You can use this contact form or email me at info@amusementUX.com.

In their redesign, the Coaster Crew's fansites have a new Network Bar at the bottom of every page for easier navigation to the other fansites. The Network Bar uses the fansites' individual color schemes. An example of the network bar for one fansite is shown here.

UX Process in Action: Navigating a network of 10 sites and counting

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Ever since the new Coaster Crew website launched in September, I have been writing articles describing my design process and design decisions.  The series began with a post about how I learned about both the roller coaster enthusiasts and the “general public” segment of The Coaster Crew’s audience and determined how to best target the site toward the general public while still meeting enthusiasts’ needs.  Later posts outlined how several of the pages on the site came to be: the new homepage, the new In the Loop page, the events list, and a page inviting users to participate in the Coaster Crew Network Forums.  I also went over a new membership signup flow which is not currently on the live site due to technical limitations.

Today, I’ll discuss how the Coaster Crew Network ties together with a feature that you can see now on CoasterCrew.net.

The Coaster Crew currently owns and operates ten live websites.  Their official site has been live in various incarnations and web addresses since 2004.  They started operating fansites for amusement parks several years ago when the Kings Dominion Fan Site went under their ownership.  (Prior to this, several Kings Dominion fansites had come and gone over the years.  Usually, these sites had one or two owners and would be maintained well for several years before the owners no longer had time or no longer had interest in working on the sites.)

They later launched fansites for Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Six Flags America.  Most recently, they have added fansites for Cedar Point, Kings Island, Canada’s Wonderland, Dollywood, and Valleyfair.  The Coaster Crew Network site originally just served as a gateway to their forums.  Earlier this year, I launched a complete, responsive redesign of that site with a focus on tying together all of their fansites and social media channels and providing a consistent look and feel with the other sites I have been redesigning for them.

Selling users on the idea of the fansites as being part of a network is important for the Coaster Crew.  The fansites have not always had a consistent way to navigate between them, and it can be hard to remember which fansites are in the network.  The staff suggested a network bar in the sites’ header or footer.  I decided that since tall footers with site maps are common in designs today, I could merge the network bar into a tall footer.

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I sketched five different ideas for the network bar at the beginning of the project.  The first was a simple listing of all of the fansites across one row.  The second divided the list of sites into four columns.  The third put the names of the parks with the fansites.  The fourth arranged the sites in columns by the park chains represented by each fansite.

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The layout that seemed to scale best arranged the parks by geographic region.  It seemed to be the best at handling new sites’ being added to the network bar.  If park chains sold a park, we would not need to update the network bar and users would not be wondering if we still had a fansite for that park.

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I tested each idea’s strength by creating wireframes for them.  The first three ideas seemed to work for a header or a footer, while the last two were definitely for footers.  In addition to scalability, the fifth idea also seemed the best for the design since a tall footer on each page would allow for some strong design ideas there.  I continued to work on that idea through the prototype and later stages.

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In Axure, I initially added bright colors for the network bar before I knew what the background pictures would be.  The copyright and footer links were initially very minimal at the bottom of the page.

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I took this background picture of El Toro with a point-and-shoot camera. It has remained the desktop background on my old desktop computer for several years. This picture seemed to go very well with the network bar, so it became the background.

I built the network bar locally using Zurb Foundation 4.3.  The fansite’s logos fill 100% of their container’s width with auto height.  The copyright and map statements were minimal.  User testers seemed to receive this layout well, but I thought more could be done with it.  It also didn’t have the ribbon yet.

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For performance reasons, the live site on mobile doesn’t keep the background in one place.  It shows the fansites two to a row instead of four to a row to size the logos ideally for the smaller screen.

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The footer now features a panel with the Coaster Crew’s mission statement.

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The network bar currently takes almost exactly one screenful for a tablet in landscape orientation.

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In portrait mode, most of the blue footer panel can also be seen.  Zurb Foundation 4.3 automatically hyphenates words on mobile devices to keep the parks’ names from becoming too wide for their columns.

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The desktop layout shows the blue footer panel mostly obscuring the roller coaster hill behind it.  It gives clear access to The Coaster Crew’s social media channels under the club’s logo in the footer.

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Lastly, here is a preview of how the network bar will look on the redesigned fansites.  I did this as an overlay, similar to the In the Loop background, because each fansite has a different color scheme and that will allow each fansite’s personality to translate into its network bar design.  This is a prototype and still subject to change as the sites move toward going live.

You can see the Coaster Crew network bar live on any page of the Coaster Crew site.  The next and last article in this series will discuss the About page: the best example in this project of my consistently pushing myself toward a better design.

I am a user experience designer specializing in the amusement industry. I work for amusement parks, ride companies, coaster clubs, and any other company or organization affiliated with amusement. If you would like to hire me, please contact me through my website or tweet at @AmusementUX. You can also like my company’s Facebook page or follow me on Twitter.

Screenshot of a page explaining why users should join The Coaster Crew's forums. This screenshot for this responsive website shows how the site adapts on an iPad 2.

UX shows 8 reasons why you should join this roller coaster forum

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I have recently been explaining the design decisions for the new Coaster Crew website, which launched in September.  During this series, I have demonstrated how I came to understand our target audience and have illustrated my design process for the homepage (this site went from a multi-page layout to a one-page layout and back!), the new In the Loop homepage, and the Coaster Crew events list.

Today, I’ll look at a page which received some very interesting feedback from users: the Forums page.

As a freelance user experience (UX) designer, I wear a lot of hats for my one-person business.  Part of this means I maintain accounts on a lot of websites: social media sites, sites for freelancers, software vendors, and many more.  Before I started using a password manager, I was forgetting a lot of passwords.  When I evaluate a website or app, one of my first gripes tends to be this: they assume I will create an account without telling me why I should.  The worst offenders make me sign in before I even see what their site is!

Yet, this is almost exactly what I was doing with an early design for the Coaster Crew forums page.  I was giving a quick description of what the forums were and leaving them hanging.  When they tested one of my old one-page layouts, some users told me that this section “doesn’t look important, so I skipped over it.”

That’s one of the big reasons why every park, every ride company, every coaster club, and every other amusement-related organization with a website needs to have their target users test their site.

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Here is my initial wireframe for the Forums section.  Part of a one-page layout, users would have seen this after the Events section.  The content seemed to stand out well enough at this stage of development.  But as other sections of the page evolved throughout my design process, this section got lost.  And that was a problem because The Coaster Crew is trying to increase their forum activity.

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The original prototype gave the Forums section a similar white-on-orange color scheme to the Podcast section.  This provided good consistency through the one-page layout.  I was planning to add a background picture but had not yet decided which ride it should be.

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I decided on Dominator at Kings Dominion for the background picture. Several years ago, the KDFansite forum merged with the Coaster Crew Network forums, where it became a board within the larger network’s forums. It’s still the most active part of the forums. The most active topic was the Intimidator 305 announcement, but I decided to use an I305 picture as the background for the mission statement. More users would see that in the one-page layout because that was almost prime real estate in that layout.

The background picture in this mockup was just a placeholder. I had taken it on the way out of Kings Dominion several years before I bought a professional camera, and it was an old Facebook upload. It did the job for a prototype even though I needed to make the picture bigger, but I wouldn’t use a background picture like this in a live site. Our first round of user testers saw the prototype with this background image.

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By now, I had a much better picture of Dominator thanks to Nikki at KDFansite.  I darkened the picture slightly to make the section’s text easier to read.  I also decided to put the calls to action on their own row instead of in front of the picture.  Users did their second round of testing on this beta site.

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Here’s the forums section at this stage in mobile width.

One of my questions for user testers in the first two rounds was, “Do we present good enough reasons to join the forums?” One positive thing they mentioned was actually the Register call to action. They didn’t want to see spam on the boards. But users also didn’t find the Forums section that eye-catching in this layout. By this stage, I had added icons in several other sections of the site. They found those sections drew their attention more.

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Going to the next round of user testing to the third was a big leap. I added a panel for readability and icons to draw users’ eyes.

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Some users in the last round of testing remarked that I had drawn attention to the wrong features of the forums.  The number of members and number of posts sounded more intimidating and tedious than helpful when it was placed in the top row.  I ended up moving those down and putting the visit tips and trip reports at the top on the live site.

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The site looks very similar on a tablet.

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Here is the row of calls to action on a tablet.

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At mobile width, the page draws users’ attention toward viewing the forums before registering.  This width is the best for this flow of events.  Users now expect to be given concrete value before they register for a site.

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When I was directed to split the site back into a multi-page layout, this created a new challenge because each section needed to be represented well on the homepage.  I opted for a shorter section of copy and just a few of the forums’ features to make it onto the homepage.

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In the live site, the social media section appears right below the forums section to enhance the feeling of being part of a community of coaster fans.  Further up the page, users are given a list of events for real-life meetups.  The forums and social media sections encourage discussions at any time of the year, regardless of whether or not parks are open.  Actually, in my experience as a Coaster Crew forum moderator, forums get quite a lot of activity in the offseason too because members take the offseason to speculate on what will happen at the parks in the following season.

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In the mobile width, I hide the icons on the homepage and try to just communicate the right things with the text. I didn’t want to go too far off of the desktop width for this because the mobile site and desktop site are the same site. The design both adapts to users’ devices and responds to their window size.

Thanks for reading about Coaster Crew’s new forums page. You can see it live here. The next article will detail a new signup flow I designed for the Coaster Crew site, which could not be delivered yet due to technical limitations. I’ll close the series with posts about the new Coaster Crew Network bar and the About page.

I am a user experience designer specializing in the amusement industry. I work for amusement parks, ride companies, coaster clubs, and any other company or organization affiliated with amusement. If you would like to hire me, please contact me through my website or tweet at @AmusementUX. You can also like my company’s Facebook page or follow me on Twitter.

Screenshot of the Coaster Crew's new Events page. The page begins by listing the perks that guests can expect, such as exclusive ride time and behind-the-scenes tours.

UX Process in Action: Evolution of a coaster club’s events list in 17 screenshots

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The new Coaster Crew site went live recently. I designed it, and in a series of articles I have been explaining how. First, I explained some of the design considerations for refocusing a coaster club’s site toward the general public and not only toward coaster enthusiasts. Then, I showed how the new Coaster Crew site moved from a multi-page layout to a single-page layout and back. Most recently, I walked through the new In the Loop homepage – from sketches to wireframes to prototypes to a live site on several different devices.

Today, let’s look at how the design for the Events page changed over time. It’s one of the more visually striking pages on the live CoasterCrew.net site now, but the design today is a radical departure from how it looked earlier in this project.

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As with the other pages, I began by sketching some ideas that I had selected earlier.  This first idea called a lot of attention to the very next event in hopes that 1) people wanting to go to multiple events would be able to keep track of what is next and 2) Coaster Crew might get more signups to events that they need to fill up soon.  This is the idea which got selected early on and lasted well into usability testing.

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The final design turned out more like this idea.  This idea highlighted the next three events, which are usually all at different parks around North America.  Site visitors could easily see which events would be closest to them.  The top row of 3 was the idea that persisted and became part of the live site’s homepage.  In reality, we went with a hybrid of these two original sketches.

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In the first wireframe, I used the original idea of highlighting the next event on the left.  ”Join us at our next event!” would have been the page title.

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The page would continue with more future events, “save the date” notices, and a way to sign up for The Coaster Crew newsletter to find out about more events.

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With no background image, the first prototype looked like a Windows 8 style flat design.  That’s not what we were trying for here.  I also later decided after a round of usability testing that less was more regarding the fancy typography.  Rather than using multiple fancy typefaces, I opted for multiple weights of one typeface with other fancier display fonts used sparingly.  This design strategy will be used on the fansites too.

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I liked how the newsletter call to action turned out in this layout.  I never liked this transition between the events list and the forums.  In later iterations, I used background pictures more liberally to help the flow between the sections.

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This background image overlay came from BGWFansite‘s special hard hat tour of Verbolten.  My intention here was to show an example of one of the perks that Coaster Crew members get at events.  I edited the background image the way I did to have consistency with the previous section (Podcast).

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The events section received a lot of requests for changes during the second round of usability testing.  Testers didn’t like how the section was very long.  Scalability would have been a problem when the staff adds the Coaster Crew events for 2014 to the page.  Coaster Crew already has a lot of events on their schedule for next year.  Testers also wanted to know what they could expect at events, and they thought the existing page wasn’t doing this well enough.

After The Coaster Crew’s Big Bang event at Kings Island with exclusive ride time (ERT) on The Beast, they posted new pictures to their Facebook page from the event.  Using an ERT picture in the background for the Events section gives the page a much more human feel and helps visitors to the site connect with the organization more.  Testers could tell that this was a picture from a real Coaster Crew event and were much more interested in the content because of it.

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I kept the page’s attention on the next event, having it fill the whole top row.  The future events list switched to a 3-to-a-row layout as in the second sketched idea.  The second idea also had future events 4-to-a-row after the first row, but I decided against this because it would not give enough room to display the event info on tablets.

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I added this What to Expect section after the list of events.  It used similar icons to the rest of the site.  Testers eventually wanted this further up the page because it was below the fold and they thought people new to Coaster Crew wouldn’t see it soon enough to notice it.  In the live site, I tightened these icons to one row and moved it above all of the listed events.

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Here is the live site on desktop.  When the 2014 events are populated, they will fill in three to a row, left to right.

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The activities list shows up for all devices because users who are unfamiliar with our events may be using any device.  For performance reasons, and because iOS doesn’t currently support fixed-position backgrounds, I stacked several images from Coaster Crew’s Big Bang event at Kings Island and made that one background image.  The top image is a sign Kings Island had for their event group.  The bottom image, shown if you scroll down on a tablet, is from a behind-the-scenes tour of The Beast.

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The stack of images shows up more obviously in portrait mode.  You won’t see The Beast’s logo after the 2014 events are populated here.  This section has the live event data that is currently in the system.

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Mobile users see what exclusive ride time is front and center before they are told about events that have it.

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After users see what they can experience at Coaster Crew events, they are invited to the next event.  More events are listed further down the page.

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The fall colors for the More Future Events list really stand out on mobile.  Calls to action take users to places where they can get more information about the event or register.  Some registrations are handled through the Coaster Crew site, while parks’ sites take care of others.

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The way to see pictures from past events shows up more clearly on phones. It allows users to go to the Coaster Crew Facebook page, fansites, or forums for more information.

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing how Coaster Crew’s new events list came to be. The next article is already ready to launch soon, and it will walk you through how the Forums page got built. It shows how I responded to users’ feedback to grab their attention with the design of the page and tell them why they should register for the forums.

I am a user experience designer specializing in the amusement industry. I work for amusement parks, ride companies, coaster clubs, and any other company or organization affiliated with amusement. If you would like to hire me, please contact me through my website or tweet at @AmusementUX. You can also like my company’s Facebook page or follow me on Twitter.

We redesigned the homepage for In the Loop, the longest-running podcast for the amusement industry, now in its tenth season. This screenshot shows what this page looks like live.

You are In The Loop – with my UX design process for The Coaster Crew

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Designing the new In the Loop homepage, at http://coastercrew.net/podcast/, gave me a great opportunity to try out and refine my user experience (UX) design process.

Coaster Crew’s old In the Loop page provided a podcast player and a place to chat when the show was live. Beyond that, it was pretty bare-bones. It didn’t really have a design per se. And for an audience of coaster enthusiasts, many would say that was enough.

However, as a designer, I am interested not only in the great features of a site but also the presentation. The site appeals to a different audience based on how it is designed. I decided to give this page the same design process as I gave all of the other sections of the site that I worked on (the only exception being the store, which is from a third-party vendor).

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Here is my original list of ideas and idea selections for the new In the Loop page.  Most of these ideas made it into the final design.

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I sketched two primary design concepts based on the ideas that I selected.  This first one was selected by the staff and refined through several rounds of usability testing.  The basic structure of the page is still intact today.

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This was a more aggressive design concept which was not selected.  It would have lent a more retro feel to this section of the site.  The first idea allowed for better consistency with the rest of the site.

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The sketches translated directly to the wireframe.  After testing the beta site on other devices, I would decide to make two changes to this layout.  I moved the Listen Live player below the summary of the show and converted the Our Guests and Archives sections from two narrow columns to one wider row with the guests listed first.

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When I colored in the prototype, the “cutout” look of the Meet the Hosts section became much more apparent.  So did the problems reading the black text on the orange background.  That would become even harder to read after the background image was added.

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Then I added images to the prototype.  The hosts’ images would become circular during the development phase with CSS.  The ride in the background image is Dragon Fire at Canada’s Wonderland.  Joshua from CWFansite took this picture, which I edited so that it would fit with the orange background.  Fellow enthusiasts may point out to me that the train is in a corkscrew, not in a vertical loop.  That’s true, but the user testers didn’t have a problem with this.

The background for the About page actually does have a train in a vertical loop.  That image uses Great Bear at Hersheypark.  The Dragon Fire picture gave a stronger silhouette which I felt better communicated the nature of the show.

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Here is the podcast section at mobile width after the second round of development and second round of usability testing.

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The In the Loop page was the hardest page in the site for our user testers to read.  I added some translucent backgrounds behind the sections with text in this prototype.

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By this time, I was also switching the site back to a multi-page layout.  I sketched some more ideas for the new homepage design and made a new wireframe of it to collect my ideas before moving forward with development again.

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Here are the Events and Podcast sections on the live CoasterCrew.net homepage.  The merch section is below this.

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Here is the Podcast section on the live CoasterCrew.net homepage at mobile width.  The site adapts to any device and window size.

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Tablets were the main reason why I changed the Guests and Archives sections to be part of the same column.

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The layout at desktop uses a wide layout grid and a fixed-position background to let the train in the loop stand out more.  I widened the Foundation framework’s maximum width to about 1600 pixels for this design.  In this screenshot, the browser window is maximized on a 1080p (1920×1080) display.

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing how the new In the Loop site came to life.  The next article is already ready to launch soon, and it will show you how the Events page got built.  That page went through a lot of layout changes to get to where it is today.

I am a user experience designer specializing in the amusement industry. I work for amusement parks, ride companies, coaster clubs, and any other company or organization affiliated with amusement. If you would like to hire me, please contact me through my website or tweet at @AmusementUX. You can also like my company’s Facebook page or follow me on Twitter.

Live screenshot from the Coaster Crew's homepage

UX Process in Action: From a Multi-Page Site to a One Page Site and Back Again

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I recently launched the Coaster Crew site and explained how I came to understand its target audience.  Today, I will discuss the design of its homepage.

The site began as a multi-page site with separate pages for In the Loop, About, Events, and many more.  These screenshots will walk through my plan to turn this into a one-page site – and how I was able to change it back into a multi-page site, keeping many features of the one-page design.

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The new Coaster Crew homepage differs significantly from any of their previous designs.  In the first sketches, I originally envisioned the new CoasterCrew.net as a single-page site. About, Podcast (In the Loop), Events, Forums, and the store would have been sections within this one page.

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I conducted card sorting studies, where participants helped me determine the navigation menus for CoasterCrew.net and the fansites.  This also told me what I should include in each section of the one-page site.  The navigation menus’ links went to different parts of that one page.

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Then I created a wireframe.  This had the layout and content of the site.  This first screenshot is the whole page zoomed out.  It’s hard to read the page at this distance, so here are some of the sections.  I will include more pictures of this in future articles about the individual pages.

The header of the site is largely the same as what you see on the site now.  The current site’s header just uses a full-width background image and has only one button.  I changed this later in the prototype.

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Here is the first prototype with no images yet.  In the theme we decided on using later, the logo is on top of the background image and the background image is full-width.

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This shows one of the segues between sections on the one long page.

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This prototype had the logo and background image.  The top section in this screenshot looks a lot more like the homepage’s header today.  In development, I toyed around with putting the logo on the left and in the middle.  Ultimately, I decided to leave it in the middle.

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Our first round of usability testing was on the aforementioned prototype.   I took the testers’ feedback into account on this first development version of the page.  This is a local version of the page rather than the actual WordPress site, so it only shows the page’s body.  I developed this using the 1180px grid.  Later, I switched to Foundation 4.3 because that framework was able to do more.

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This shows the About to Podcast segue and a technical problem with WordPress that took me weeks to resolve.  Its auto-paragraph feature (wpautop, for those who know WordPress) was needed by our staff so that they wouldn’t have to know code to write content.  In the layout I was developing, this feature added a lot of unnecessary spacing in the layout.

Here’s how I fixed extra wpautop spacing in our theme (The One Pager by WooThemes).  This goes in the custom.css file.  #network-bar is one of my custom styles for this client’s site.

/* Removes empty paragraphs. */ p:empty { display: none; /* hides all truly empty paragraphs. Paragraphs with spaces will still show! */ }

/* Remove whitespace between sections by displaying only non-empty paragraphs in the entry */ .home p { display: none; }

#header p, #network-bar p, .home .entry div p:not(:empty) /* all non-empty paragraphs in a post/page, header, or network bar */ { display: block; /* default for p */ }

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That development version was deployed to a beta site for the second round of usability testing. Based on that feedback, parts of the prototype went back to the drawing board. The biggest changes were to our Events and Forums sections. These had a lot of content added to them in order to help the users of our site. Stay tuned for future posts about these two sections.

By now, several sections of the site had become quite long. Linking to different sections of the single-page site was not as straightforward either. So our staff requested that I convert the site back to a multi-page layout. This involved substantial rework in the homepage design, including new sketches and a lot of tinkering with the design in the browser with Firebug.

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Moving back to a multi-page design takes more than copy and paste because, as a designer, I have to keep in mind the paths that users will take through the site. I have to make sure people will still visit all of the pages by making sure that the homepage gave a fair amount of space with them. I ultimately decided to shorten the sections of the one-page layout, link to the full pages, and add one more section for The Coaster Crew’s social media feeds. This screenshot shows the segue from the shortened Events section to the shortened Podcast section. On desktops, the sections feature fixed-position backgrounds.

I then did a third round of usability testing, incorporated nearly all of the feedback, and sent off the project for final launch prep. The site finished going live in early September.

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This is how the top of the live homepage looks at desktop, tablet, and mobile widths. Any of these layouts can display on your computer depending on how wide your browser window is.

Stay tuned for the next article in this series. It will explain how my process enables Coaster Crew podcast listeners to stay In the Loop on the new site.

I am a user experience designer specializing in the amusement industry. I work for amusement parks, ride companies, coaster clubs, and any other company or organization affiliated with amusement. If you would like to hire me, please contact me through my website or tweet at @AmusementUX. You can also like my company’s Facebook page or follow me on Twitter.

Live screenshot from the Coaster Crew's homepage

In 15 Pictures: The new Coaster Crew site goes live

The new site for The Coaster Crew has now gone live. Seven months in the making, this is my second site for Coaster Crew, after their new Coaster Crew Network Portal was launched in June. Like the Portal, the new Coaster Crew site uses a responsive design. This means that it is designed to look good on desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

The Coaster Crew is a roller coaster club with over 1000 members in the US and Canada. I’ve attended several of their events in the past and really enjoyed interacting with other roller coaster enthusiasts, riding coasters in Exclusive Ride Time, and going on behind the scenes tours! I hope my schedule will allow me to attend their events again soon.

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One of the most interesting challenges of this site was helping Coaster Crew expand their audience of coaster enthusiasts to reach more of the general public. General public guests who enjoy riding roller coasters often don’t know about coaster clubs and tend to visit parks less often than enthusiasts do. However, there is not as much disparity between enthusiasts and GP in terms of which rides they tend to like, save for “hidden gem” rides at lesser-known parks that tend to receive much of their attention among only enthusiasts and small parks’ regional audiences.

Over the coming weeks, I will continue to work on redesigns for the Coaster Crew fansites. The fansites have a more direct benefit for the general public, who should find several new sections for the fansites helpful.

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I began this project by researching the current and prospective users of the Coaster Crew sites.  This is a common strategy for people in my profession, user experience design.  I’ve written a whole article on how I did the user research for these sites.  It will be the next article to go live in this series.

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Next, I sketched out every page of the new site.  Many ideas in this original sketch for the In the Loop section were included in what is now the live site.

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After that, I created wireframes for each page.  This was an early idea for what is now the header on the homepage.

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Then, I created the prototype for the site in three iterations.  This is the second round of the prototype for the In the Loop page, as depicted in Axure.

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After a second round of user testing on a beta site, I created a final prototype.  This Forums section is from that prototype.

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A third round of user testing on the beta site gave me some great feedback, like moving a section showing people what to expect at a Coaster Crew event to the top of the Events section.

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The BGWFansite and KDFansite staff and I donated some pretty striking pictures of coasters to use on the site.  The mission statement appears over a picture of Intimidator 305 at Kings Dominion.

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An infographic and call to action for membership highlight the new About section on CoasterCrew.net.  A future article will show more about the design process for this infographic.  I took the background picture at Hersheypark this season.

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This is the first Coaster Crew site designed to be easy to use on mobile phones.  This page allows users to listen to In the Loop on their phones.

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I mixed different font weights throughout the new Coaster Crew site design.  This is the event list at mobile width.

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The new homepage features teasers of each section of the site.  User testers loved how the background for each section stayed in one place as they scrolled it into view.

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A new network bar unites the entire Coaster Crew network.  (It does have a title, Coaster Crew Network, which is not in this screenshot so that I could show the full footer.)

This has been a great project to do. Explore the live site at http://coastercrew.net, and stay tuned for more articles describing how each page was built! The next one will describe how I learned more about the types of people in our current and target audiences.

I am a user experience designer specializing in the amusement industry. I work for amusement parks, ride companies, coaster clubs, and any other company or organization affiliated with amusement. If you would like to hire me, please contact me through my website or tweet at @AmusementUX. You can also like my company’s Facebook page or follow me on Twitter.

The new Coaster Crew Network Portal acquaints users with the Coaster Crew's network of fansites and invites them to join The Coaster Crew.

Introducing the new Coaster Crew Network portal

My first site for the Coaster Crew, the Coaster Crew Network portal, has now gone live.

When I started working for Coaster Crew in January, I intended to redesign their main site and their fansites.  I would redesign one fansite as a template for the other fansites’ staff to roll out the changes to their fansites.

During the design process, I realized that the sites needed more than a bar across the top or bottom of each page for unifying the network’s brand.  They needed a portal site to raise awareness of their brand and the different sites that they provide.  The new portal site provides this in a responsive design which adapts to any device and window width.

These screenshots show the design process:

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Findability was an interesting problem to tackle with the Coaster Crew fansites.  Each of their fansites currently have very similar names, such as KDFansite, KIFansite, and SFAFansite.  I thought about classifying the fansites by park owner, but the primary persona for the design would have been confused for any park chain other than Six Flags.  Of all parks represented by their fansites, only one has the park chain’s full common name in its name (Six Flags America).  Parks change hands over time too, and this can be a point of confusion for the users.

I decided to solve this by classifying the parks by region and listing the parks’ names and locations with the fansite logo.  It makes the webpage longer, but it enforces the correlation between fansite, park, and location to people who may have trouble with it.

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I mimicked the final site as well as possible using Axure RP 6.5.  Certain features, such as the pinned background, work differently in Axure than they intend to work in the final product.  Axure RP 7 will have more features for responsive design and is coming later this year.

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The site went through quite a few color schemes.  CWFansite’s manager sent me the nice background picture of Canada’s Wonderland’s B&M gigacoaster, Leviathan, which served as a nice frame of reference for the rest of the page.

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Next, I coded the page using the latest version (4) of Zurb‘s Foundation Framework, with custom CSS.  Due to licensing, we had to switch out a font that we had planned to use in the Portal and in the forthcoming CoasterCrew.net redesign.  We’re now making better use of different weights of the same typeface, a theme you will also see in the fansites when their redesigns go live.

Until now, the site had been using a color scheme based on Leviathan’s.  The users who tested our site (in exchange for free Coaster Crew memberships) gave us overwhelming feedback that the text was too hard to read.  GIMP came to the rescue.  Putting two directional lights to focus the viewer’s eyes on the passing train made the background behind the text darker, and adding a translucent overlay or panel to the main content column made the text easier to read as well.

One last change got us to the design that you see now.  The “Coaster Crew” text in the header was replaced by a Coaster Crew logo, with “Network” placed to the right or below it depending on the window size.

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I would like to thank the many others from Coaster Crew, listed in the site credits, who contributed in various ways to this design and launch.  If you are interested in doing usability testing for the other forthcoming redesigns, test opportunities will be announced via the Coaster Crew Facebook page.

I am a freelance user experience designer focusing on the amusement industry: amusement and theme parks, ride companies, and other related companies.  If you are interested in hiring me to work on a site or app for you on a freelance/corp-to-corp basis, please contact me via my website.

The first 23 responses to a user survey for The Coaster Crew

Lessons Learned: Coaster Crew User Surveys

I landed a new UX redesign project in January for Coaster Crew and their network of fansites.  So far, it is going great and is ahead of schedule.  Currently, I am almost done with user surveys and about to make the personas.

The user surveys are based at AYTM.  The initial respondents were recruited through Facebook and Twitter.  To get more respondents, I created new rounds of similar surveys at Mechanical Turk, ultimately targeting users in the USA and Canada.

Here are some of my lessons learned:

1.  To take a survey for free, people must already be passionately interested in your subject.  In other words, people in audiences that your organization is trying to expand into will most likely not take your surveys for free.

When the first surveys were launched, I expected a relatively even split between coaster enthusiasts and general public.  We had announced the surveys throughout Coaster Crew’s social media channels.  Instead, the first round gave us less than 30 responses.  When I noticed that most of the respondents had ridden hundreds of different coasters, I realized that this only catered to coaster enthusiasts.  So I had to split the survey in two to get both coaster enthusiasts and general public (GP) to respond.

2.  Therefore, if you want a big sample size, expect to pay up.

Workers want a fair rate.  And they deserve it.  Turker Nation, a large community of Mechanical Turk workers, accused me of promoting slave labor on Twitter for the rates that I was paying.

I have a few rationales for my low rate:

a) I’m not getting paid for this project. In their tweet, Turker Nation said, “Would YOU work for that?” (shouting theirs).  I am working on this project for free – because I love theme parks, because I love being part of Coaster Crew, because I see it as a way to give back to Coaster Crew for years of letting me go to their events, and because I need work for my UX portfolio (particularly in amusement – my main target industry).  Therefore, when I was writing the proposal for this project, I was assuming I wouldn’t have to pay my respondents – or, for that matter, my usability testers.

b) Our budget is low.  To my knowledge, Coaster Crew has no full-time employees.  All of us have outside jobs, have our own companies, or are students.  The organization is on a lean budget and interested in branching out to have events at more parks and fansites for more parks.  I want this project to further these initiatives and not cause them to be disrupted in the short run.  Within the past year, they have launched several new fansites.  I would rather concentrate money on making sure the end result is as professional as possible.  So if I were to only have a couple hundred dollars to work with, I’d invest in high-quality, responsive WordPress themes as the highest priority.  For the record, I do not send my Adobe receipts to my clients and tell them to pay me for the tools I use to do the job.

c) Surveys need a representative board of respondents.  For that, you need a lot of respondents.  I was trying to get the most respondents within my budget as I could.

I would use MTurk for low- or medium-budget projects such as these.  If money were no object, I would just use AYTM’s panel.  Originally, I was dreaming big – 3000 respondents would answer my survey for free.  Doing this on AYTM’s panel would cost about $90,000, and double that if there is even one prequalification question on the survey.  However, for a smaller-scale, still high-budget survey, AYTM’s panel would produce amazing results.  I can target it not only by country but by states and counties, so it would be very easy (if expensive) for me to hire a similar set of respondents as the parks would want in their own marketing surveys.  AYTM’s tools for doing this are truly powerful.  Their interface is a lot easier to figure out than MTurk, and (even in their free surveys) you can slice and dice presentation data almost any way you like to get great data to back up your personas.

3.  Target your surveys by location.

Fortunately, the free first round of our survey gave us great results for the coaster enthusiasts – because the results we paid for in the coaster enthusiast survey did not.  Coaster Crew presently serves the fans of parks in the US and Canada.  Only 3 of our 69 respondents to the “enthusiasts” survey were based in either of those two countries.  Most of the others were based in India.

The problems with India on a survey for our coaster club are these:

a) Coaster Crew doesn’t target the parks in India, so these are the wrong users to research even if they have the necessary coaster count to qualify for taking this survey.

b) Per RCDB, there aren’t even 100 currently operating roller coasters in India.

c) Most of the respondents indicated they would not drive more than 6 hours to visit an amusement park.  So most likely, they have not ridden any coasters outside India.

So, combining b) and c), most of these respondents did not really qualify to take this survey.  But I couldn’t reject them (although I rejected some for failing to follow the instructions), because the acceptance criteria didn’t spell this out.  I paid the price for this.  Fortunately, the free survey in the first round gave me at least some data on the enthusiasts, and I’ve been part of that community for years as well.

Interestingly, the GP survey got no respondents at its original reward price.  I canceled that batch and launched two new GP batches for the US and Canada.  With the tricks below, I got much better data.

4.  Clarify your qualification questions.

We had a “coaster enthusiasts’ survey” that was intended for those who had ridden at least 100 different roller coasters.  By comparison, I’ve ridden about 80 so far.  So I am close to the cutoff for “enthusiasts” even though I plan whole vacations around roller coasters, have been to several ERT sessions for members of coaster clubs, know what ERT is (exclusive ride time), know coasters by their make and model more than their names, and so on.

“Coaster count” is a widely understood term in the coaster enthusiasts’ community.  However, the general public seems to not think in those terms.  They’re not going around the world to ride kiddie coasters at special club events just so they can have 700.  Add to that the cross-cultural challenges I had in the first round of the survey (as I described earlier), and people took this qualification question to mean, “Have you ridden a roller coaster at least 100 times?”  I think that is what tripped up the respondents in the first enthusiasts’ survey on MTurk.

5.  Have written questions that require people to post relevant answers – and reject anyone who gives a nonsensical response.

In that survey, I got some truly absurd answers.  Survey respondents were asked a standard question: “When you use the website of any coaster club, do you find anything frustrating that you wish was easier? If so, what?”  One person responded, “last month”.  I couldn’t reject their task because I didn’t ask for a Worker ID.  So that was one thing I added in the next round of surveys.

Most importantly, I added two standard questions: 1) What is your favorite ride at any amusement park? and 2) What is your favorite amusement park?.  These are great ways to understand both enthusiasts and the GP, as well as guards against nonsensical data showing up in the surveys.  In AYTM, I can easily reject or filter out answers that don’t make sense when I publish my survey results.

6.  Ask MTurk’s support team for help whenever needed.

MTurk’s interface for new requesters is daunting, to put it nicely.  Commands like “Cancel this batch” leave me with more questions than answers: if a batch is canceled, do I get the money back?  Are workers that completed the survey still paid? … and so on.

I am also not sure what republishing a rejected assignment for other workers to complete means.  I rejected 18 of 69 respondents in the enthusiasts’ survey based on my acceptance criteria.  Several emailed me asking why, and in only one or two cases (with all of my surveys) have they actually come back and submitted the survey properly, allowing me to approve their previously rejected assignment.  The interface and UX for this are backwards, though the task itself does not take very long after you figure out how.  Their support team was responsive in telling me how to do this.  Between their UX and their lack of clear documentation, I had to call MTurk’s support team about 3 times in the first week.

So those are some lessons I learned in using MTurk to do user surveys.  Next, after all of the surveys have concluded, I will share some of my findings from the surveys themselves – to help you all understand a bit about how roller coaster enthusiasts and general public amusement park visitors use the web and coaster club sites.