Not so scary: Using Design Thinking for Haunted Houses

(aka The Haunted House Queue Line Disaster)

Ever since I was could walk, I’ve been obsessed with Halloween and design. This passion evolved from building a haunted (grass-killing) maze on my parent’s front-lawn to designing large scale, scary, mountaintop attractions which cater to the thousands. Unknowingly (at first), I studied human behavior to give people what they want: nail-biting, scream-inducing fun.

In retrospect, my decision to become a UX Designer was a no-brainer. Both jobs require creativity, observation of human behavior and problem-solving to design a product tailored to a particular audience. Now that I’m a UX professional, I have names for these things. It’s called Design Thinking and we follow its steps daily: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. Whether it’s defining new features based on a customer interview or listening to our audience’s screams, my best decisions have been informed by Design Thinking.

Let me take you behind the scenes, to demonstrate the connection between Design Thinking and Haunted Attractions.

It was a dark and stormy night

Just kidding, it was a clear night in the beginning of October. Atop Thunder Ridge Ski Mountain, nestled deep in the woods, our haunted village lay polished (well, maybe a little bloodstained) and ready to go. Our production team and the cast had spent months preparing for this moment.

Opening Night!

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Our cast got into character — donning robes, chains and airbrush makeup — transforming themselves from cleaning ladies and deli clerks into vampires, psychos and an assortment of vile characters. The Bone Collector exercised his voice as he finished his sandwich, careful not to get any fake blood on it. The haunting scenes and soundtracks were switched on, and our haunted village came to life! Hearing the squeaks of approaching hay wagons, our production ghouls rushed to the peephole to watch as our first groups arrived.

Filled to the brim with our customers, the hay wagons creaked along the narrow gravel road up the mountain. By the time they emerged from the dark woods into the clearing at the top, our customers became our victims — full of nervous anticipation and screaming with delight. As families and couples were offloaded, they confronted a decrepit, glowing Victorian mansion towering three-stories above them.

Terror building

Breathing deeply, the now hushed customers walked slowly along the snake of the queue line, which led them to the ominous house. They laughed nervously, hearing echoing screams and clanking coming from somewhere and nowhere. We had our new victims just where we wanted them. 

As the everyone moved closer to the front doors, the queue line netting swelled causing the crowd to grow denser. The large, hooded gatekeeper emerged from behind the shadows and snarled “WHO’s NEXT? HOW MANY VICTIMS IN YOUR GROUP?” Everyone stepped back in fear, except for a large knot of uncertain people who inched forward. The gatekeeper’s bright red lips growled with the rules of the Haunt as she sent that group through the entrance doors. The door slammed and louder screams ensued.

Terror fading

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The impatient crowd moved still closer, squishing together. Someone shouted: “We are 7, no 8! We already heard the rules. Can we go in now?!” The gatekeeper wanted to bring this large group inside but the rest of the crowd was too close. So, she stalled, screaming once again, “NO, YOU MUST LISTEN TO MY RULES!” As more hay wagons arrived, this scenario continued. Scary enthusiasm turned to eye rolling. Equally frustrated, our professional gatekeeper had little choice. She barked the rules over and over.

Design Thinking Step 1: Empathize - We witnessed our customers’ frustration with our queue line implementation and heard their feedback in real time. This helped us get into their shoes and feel their pain.  We saw how little things could add up to a big problem!

Our production crew’s concern grew along with the crowd size, as the entrance became packed with irritated customers. “We’ve heard the rules already. Let us in!” Their fear was dissipating quickly. We were losing our crucial scary built up, our terror! Our perfected screams were drowned out by annoyed parents and first dates who were now cutting in line, ignoring our carefully rehearsed directions. 

Design Thinking Step 2: Define - We shared observations, hearsay, and customer feedback. This helped us identify three problem areas: re-hearing the rules, too much space for people to stand and not enough separation.

We never expected our customers to push the queue netting and move so close to the gatekeeper. The production ghouls quickly called an emergency meeting huddling in a hallway in the middle of the haunted house! Chains rattled, monsters roared and chainsaws wailed as we calmly talked through this emergency. 

Design Thinking Step 3: Ideate - Using a stick to draw our concepts in the sand, we quickly sketched out solutions to those three problems.

A solution rises from the dead

The following day, as the sun set atop the mountain, we sprung into action, merging our two concepts into one fluid prototype. First, we moved the queue line back about 40 feet from its original position right against the entrance. Next, we tapered it, causing the crowd to automatically funnel into smaller groups. Finally, a coarse old rope was placed across the now-tapered queue line exit where the ineffective netting had been. Rushing back to our peephole, production ghouls eagerly watched as the haywagon lurched up. As before, anxious customers funneled into the queue line as the spectacle came to life.

Design Thinking Step 4: Prototype - We created a prototype for our ideas and used the next night to put them to the test!

Then something amazing happened. The tapered queue line swelled but stayed true. Couples got closer, groups stayed together and all got into single file! The gatekeeper screamed, running  up to the rope, causing the crowd to jump back in fright. She snarled “HOW MANY VICTIMS IN YOUR GROUP?!” A meek girl stuttered “4-4-4 in our group”. The gatekeeper undid the rope and lead the trembling group of 4 to the front entrance. Now alone with the gatekeeper, that group held each other tighter as she barked the rules, leading them into the haunted village.

Design Thinking Step 5: Test - We observed our customers with our prototype queue line and witnessed a solution! All of our ideas had worked to help address the major pain points!

Cheering behind our peepholes, we ghouls high-fived each other. It worked! There were no line cuts, no one was frustrated, and fright was heightened as each group separated from the crowd! It’s scary how successful that year was.

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.

During Halloween season, I lead a double life. Like Batman, my costume changes after hours. In the haunt industry, we transform our customer’s reality and make them experience a range of emotions in the middle of the woods! I encourage you to follow your own creative bliss and see how this 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 playdate will be your new testing ground for Design Thinking!

Come see us for a few laughs and screams: www.hauntingatthehollow.com

Or follow me for all things fun with a spooky twist: Instagram: @adamczarnik


About the Author

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Adam is a Senior UX Designer at PitneyBowes who has a passion for creating spooky Halloween  attractions and UX design. And it turns out those two jobs have a lot in common!!  His specialities are Web/Mobile Design, Graphic Design, Illustration, User Research, Wireframing/Prototyping, Front-end Development, Photography, Video, Airbrush, Fine Arts, Sculpture, Special FX, and Haunted House Fabrication.