The Innovation of the Experience Economy - Mk Haley & Priscilla Edmonds

Disney Imagineer, Mk Haley and Mahuki Activation Manager, Priscilla Edmonds join Angus on the show to discuss the Innovation of the Experience Economy. 

Topics include:

  • How Disney made waiting in line enjoyable

  • The role of physical stores and real life experiences in an e-commerce economy

  • How Disney makes stories like Frozen feel authentic

  • How sotrytelling might apply for an early stage startup

Mk Haley 

Mk Haley is a Disney Imagineer. 

Imagineers design the Disney theme parks, resorts, cruise ships and experiences that bring joy to millions of people every year. Within the Imagineers there are over 200 different disciplines. Mk has over 24 years of experience in both the creative and research teams, and joins us today as Walt Disney Imagineering Academic Outreach.

Priscilla Loong

Priscilla is a trained Graphic Designer turned Entrepreneur.

In 2015, Priscilla co-founded The Misprint Co. a social enterprise startup company focused on repurposing waste paper into notebooks. Later that year, The Misprint Co. participated in the Lightning Lab Manufacturing business accelerator programme.

Having been bitten by the startup bug, Priscilla joined the team at Mahuki – Te Papa’s business accelerator programme. Mahuki is focused on enabling startups focused on GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archive and Museums) sector innovations to access the market and grow. Priscilla is now the Activation Manager for Mahuki, and architects the four month programme helping startups to accelerate their businesses.

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Rather read? Enjoy the written version of the interview below.

Mk, could you tell us what a Disney Imagineer is?

Mk Haley: We spent a very long time keeping ourselves secret, so not a lot of people know what we do. Walt Disney Imagineering is the branch of the Walt Disney Company that designs our theme parks, cruise ships, resorts, and we've just rolled in a lot of our physical consumer products based experiences. So, a section of a shop that might have an experience, you don't just pick a thing in a box up and buy it. You have an interaction with a cast member that helps with your experience. Physical stuff, destinations for families to go for immersive storytelling.

We also teach the subject which is my role as the Walt Disney Imagineering Academic Outreach


Priscilla, could you tell us a little bit about your former startup Misprint Co? Do you still talk about it in your current role?

Priscilla: Oh, definitely, because it's a part of what I do. It links directly to my work now hosting Mk at Mahuki.

Misprint started back when I was studying at university. We had a paper that combined graphic design and marketing. During the paper we had to find a problem that surrounded us and apply a business solution, utilizing design thinking. We saw the graphic design industry produce huge amounts of waste paper. As designers, we’d do a doodle, chuck it out, and it's so wasteful. We decided to make notebooks for graphic designers out of the waste paper.

Graphic designers typically purchase expensive moleskins. They’re beautiful notebooks that often, we are too scared to write in or doodle in. By creating notebooks from waste paper we give graphic designers permission to doodle and use them in an imperfect way.

After selling out on campus and at craft markets, we decided we were onto something. We incorporated as a business and went through a business accelerator program, similar to Mahuki. That was my introduction to the startup world.

That accelerator was Lightning Lab, do you find yourself pulling on some of the skills you learned in your Lightning Lab in the accelerator you run, Mahuki?

Oh, totally. I think the biggest learning was from experts such as Mk Haley. Bringing in people that can help you think differently, outside of the box, applying different industry knowledge into your business, is key.

So with Mahuki, I’m excited to be able to bring in MK Haley from L.A. to talk about customer experience.

MAHUKI operates in the GLAM (galleries libraries archives museums) sector. Are there kind of common misconceptions or things that people think about GLAM that aren't necessarily true?

Priscilla: Totally, totally. And MK speaks about this in a lot of her talks that she's been doing throughout this tour.

I think the old school framework is that the object is the thing. It's behind a glass box, don't touch it. You respect it. Truth of the object is a term that's often used for that. It often means very little interaction, and not much other than a fixed visual experience. But there are many museums doing amazing interactive things, and Mk works with a lot of the ones in the States.

Mk, are there any that come to mind as an example of a museum doing experiences well?

Mk Haley: Many museums are moving in that direction and sometimes the motivation is, "Wow, our attendance is down. How do we attract more people in?" We recently had some change over in the American education system called No Child Left Behind, which was not a great policy. The idea was that even the lowest performing students would be catered to, but what that meant was all the resources went to the lowest performing students, and so that middle and higher ones didn't, and field trips were pulled out of the equation. Field trips no longer mattered, and so it took about a year or two before schools scrambled and re-imagined museums, re-imagined their curriculum to dovetail with this new form of education. But that rebirth involved a lot of interactive and immersive experiences that directly connected to textbooks so you could justify coming to it. But again, it was bit of a scramble when in response to dropped attendance.

Mk Haley:
Everyone in the universe presumes that they matter. That they have a voice, and that they can interact with things. Historically, we would sit and listen to the radio play. Then we'd sit and listen to the television, or the theater, and we would clap, which was the extent to which we interacted. Now you can vote on who's going to be on American Idol the next night. You can have online forums and conversations that can impact a lot of the world around you, and that's not surprising anymore. It's kind of been the norm, and museums, especially, are responding to this shift.

I want to riff off of talking about education, and obviously setting up classrooms for creativity is a part of that. How does Disney set up their rooms or offices to facilitate creativity?

Mk Haley: First of all, different project teams have different priorities. A lot of what we work on is top secret, even internally, and so that means lock-down. Nobody's coming through that isn’t authorised.

However, for some teams, it's very important that you collaborate. For example, a lot of our digital media team who work on pipeline things have their standing desks facing each other with a little alley in between where they can all see each otter at all times. That helps facilitate collaboration over the course of the day. It let’s people imagining “I'm doing the thing. Then i'm throwing it to this guy who does the next level thing with it.”

On that collaboration front, in another interview you speak about how making sure everybody's collaborating is key. Disney has 200,000+ employees. Is there a particular part of the process that you introduce people in for that collaboration, that feedback?

Mk Haley:
We're getting much better at including more people earlier in the process. 50-60 years ago you would do a thing and then you would show it to the safety officer who would be like, "Oh, no. We can’t do that." Now we're including those folks on the design team at the front end.

The key takeaway is that the earlier you bring people in, the less work it is, because you don’t have to redo anything.

We've recently done an expansion at Disney World and Fantasyland to expand capacity there, and we brought the food and beverage team in super early. As a result we have a lot of really great dishes that are thematically consistent with that space. In the Beauty and the Beast they sing, "Try the grey stuff, it's delicious." and at the theme park we serve the grey stuff! (And it is delicious).

What is it made of?

Mk Haley:
It's kind of a cookies and cream dish.

The key takeaway is that the earlier you bring people in, the less work it is, because you don't have to redo anything. It's always important to have one person as your lead, the creative or technical lead, and all decisions end with them. It doesn't mean everybody doesn't get to voice their opinion, or contribute in some way, but it's all towards in service of one goal, makes it a little tidier.

Is there something that you're particularly excited about in relation to creating experiences?

Mk Haley:
I serve on a lot of juries for conferences, so I see a lot of stuff that's not accepted, that the world never sees, that may be a little bit bonkers. The thing that's most exciting to me is more so the process than the actual technologies. It's so democratized. You used to have a studio and an expensive film camera to make a movie. Now I can film a movie on my iPhone and distribute it on YouTube the same day.

t's easier to access, work with, edit, and distribute is what's exciting for me.

Yeah, but it's always a tool. That's the thing that we always have to remind people, it's the technology's there for you to help you do something, not necessarily the technology is the thing.

The most exciting thing that I've seen in the three years of Mahuki's existence is the cultural change within the museum. Museum staff are much more open to exploring new ideas, playing with new technologies that they haven't played with before, and being less risk adverse to failure and almost being guinea pig in many ways.

Mk Haley:
I think the same applies to our museum staff because they also want to matter. They're super eager to beta test your beta test. "This is new, it's going to be up for a month, what do you think?" Guests aren't disappointed when they break it. They're thrilled that they helped in the design process.

Especially if you thank them for their help.

That's the big one, right? Always be polite. I think you mentioned that in one of your talks how that effects return business?

Mk Haley: The biggest driver for return business in retail is simply a polite exchange. Polite cashier, customer service. That's free, it's free to be polite. Why would you not jump on that? And it's okay to say you don't know or, "I don't have that thing for you," but politely and add” "I'll find out or I'll figure out why we don't have it or why we don't have it in," because people want to be respected.

Is there a particular flop or, something that didn’t work out well when you first released it that comes to mind for either of you?

When we first started Misprint we wanted to mulch the paper down to make new paper. It turns out it takes about two weeks to dry one sheet of paper during winter in Wellington. It was just not going to work.

What we found when going dumpster diving for paper, was that there were lots of blank sheets of paper that were totally reusable. So when we first launched, we tested two products. We had the mulched paper, new sheets, versus the straight up stapled one-sided notebooks. We found that actually the one sided notebooks with content still on the sheets of paper sold a lot better, because people were like, "Oh, I can totally doodle over this, because this is discarded paper." Versus the kind of more premium feeling recycled mulched paper.

Mk Haley:
I sometimes get ahead of myself and get so excited.

For example, I teach the art and technology of theme entertainment design. I've also taught building virtual world and game design. I wanted to change the grading schema, to where instead of A, B, C, D, F, you had 100 points a semester you could earn, and 100 was an A.

You started with zero points and the idea was you could only move forward. I presumed most college age students were gamers, they understand achievements and I assumed that psychologically this would give them a boost.

Unfortunately, the world was not ready for this plan. Students want to know what their GPA is at all times. You can't tell them “Well, you've got 10 out of 10 points on the first assignment.” They think: "No, but I don't have 10%, I have an A". Parents especially weren’t on board.

I tried that for two years and that just that did not work. The A, B, C, D, 100%, 80% is so ingrained in our culture as to what that means, even how my grading system does the math on prepping grades to automatically release is reliant on that. So I might have been a little too optimistic or ahead of my time.

Along the lines of validation and feedback, could you share how Disney validated and solved the problem of waiting in line?

Mk Haley:
This is something I've actually been working on for years. I don't think you need a researcher to tell you people don't like waiting in lines, but there are several ways that we collected that feedback. We just asked guests. We have folks who work around the park with a little tablet that will survey you. All the guests who stay in our hotels are sent a survey. Very broad and very general questions, but patterns emerge, and humans don't like waiting in lines period.

In some ways there's nothing you can do about that, but we've actually had a few interesting approaches at Magic Kingdom and Disney World in Orlando. The Dumbo Ride is one of the most popular rides we have. It's got a lower through port than some other attractions with the longer waits, so we added a playground. At the Dumbo attractions, you sign up online and you get your fast pass so it's much shorter queue. But you can also join a standby line where there isn't a queue that you're standing in - instead there’s a playground.

Parents sit in bleachers, it's set to look like a circus ring with all the attractions: the swings, and slides, and stuff are in the middle. The kids don’t get impatient because they don’t feel like they’re waiting.

Mk Haley:
There’s lots of ways we can distract you. For example, we tell stories about the place you're in.

People will wait 45 minutes to see a nighttime spectacular, so at Disney's California Adventure while people are sitting and waiting, they mess around on their devices. Taking themselves out of my world.

To combat this, we've got an experience where you can programme a little light show around the Ferris Wheel while you're waiting. People play a game like Simon, memorising a pattern, and if you win that round, you get to programme a little show. You and your family know that you programmed the show. You're still on a device, you're still amusing yourself, but it's thematically consistent with the space you're in.

Mk Haley:
Recently we released Disney Play, which is a location based app. So if you're in Animal Kingdom, then you're playing games, solving trivia, related to animal kingdom topics.

You mentioned in an interview with Destination Imagination that the storytelling process at Walt Disney hasn't changed in 60 years. Could you tell us a little bit about that process?

Mk Haley:
Joe Rohde who's one of our Senior Imagineers is brilliant, because he can quantify and articulate the art of storytelling.

A lot of storytellers who are good at it, it's sort of innate, and they can't themselves break down how they're good at it or why they're good at it. If you Google Joe Rohde, he's got a series of great lectures on the difference between theme and story.

The key is keeping your space highly detailed and immersive. It's easy to sometimes want to strip those elements out, because sometimes there's a cost to them if you're building a highly immersive space with a lot of detail, but the minute you strip those details out, then that's when you lose on the in depth story. So you have to keep reminding yourself you're not saving money by stripping that stuff out from it, not in the long run.

Could you give us an example of products or companies whom don’t have storytelling as their core purpose, but they've used storytelling really well?

Mk Haley: Yeah, and a lot of them are startups.

I actually have a little mantra: Make me aware, make me care, give me a call to action.

Make me aware of your thing. "Oh, you sell socks."

Make me care. "I sell socks, every pair I sell I donate a pair to someone in need." "Oh, I care about that."

Give me a call to action. "You buy my socks, somebody in need gets a free pair."

Tom Shoes follow that model. They have wrapped their core mission in a story or values around what they do that makes me want to participate in that. And Tom's is interesting. They're a shoe company. Buy a shoe, they donate a shoe. And accidentally what they did was put cobblers out of business. So they were negatively impacting the local villages. Fortunately, they completely redid their business model.

Does Disney, often use external influences or historical stories when creating new stories?

At Disney, we will never presume we're the subject matter experts. We go and connect with the subject matter. So if its something location dependent, we'll go and visit those places. I don't think a lot of people really understand how authentic Frozen is. Arendal is a make believe place, but the research that was done in Norway, and in some of those Scandinavian areas. For example, the clothes that Kristoff wears are identical to the indigenous people called the Sami, and somewhere in the base of your brain you might get that this feels authentic, because we’ve actually made it authentic.

With eCommerce expected to grow to 4.9 trillion dollars U.S. by 2021, what role do you see brick and mortar stores playing?

Mk Haley:
Brick and mortar needs to be an important part of a longer sequence of events. You bring me there for an unique experience that I can't have anywhere else. Celebrity events. One of a kind type experiences. A premier or launch. Look at how many people still wait in line outside Apple stores. Even though you can order online. They make that an experience.

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