Jun 12 2008

User Experience Review: SeaWorld.com

San Diego is known for its weather, its beaches and its attractions. Talk to any out of towner and they’ll likely tell you they are heading to one of two spots during their stay here: the World Famous San Diego Zoo or SeaWorld. We decided to take a stroll inside seaworld.com this week to give you an insider’s look at why the aquatic park’s website may not be as friendly as it could be to its patrons.

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SeaWorld is synonymous with Shamu the famous Orca who defies gravity by jumping into the air at high speeds and then splashes brave park visitors who sit close to the glass. It’s an iconic American brand most adults and kids are familiar with. But the fact is SeaWorld has grown into something much bigger than the killer whale show. SeaWorld now operates three parks, not just in San Diego but one in Orlando and another in San Antonio (how did they get a killer whale across land?). SeaWorld is actually owned by another iconic mammal – one you’d recognize by the famous Clydesdale’s that are featured in their commercials. Anheuser-Busch which also owns Busch Gardens, operates SeaWorld Adventure Parks as well as a host of other amusement/ride parks.

Design: SeaWorld went through a recent design update for the site. It’s reflective of the park itself although the bright blues and yellow seem to be geared more towards kids. Its Adobe Flash heavy and relies on past visitor’s photos of their trip to provide all of the images.

Style: Very media heavy style. Pictures drive the site’s look through flash animation and small thumbnails that act as navigation. This is not a good way of creating the experience for a main website. A microsite maybe but not a site where you are trying to get people information about your parks and sell tickets. The entrance to the site seems detached from the rest of the interior pages like it was piece-mealed over time.

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The style of the footer needs to be updated. Its inconsistent and while you are browse through the site at times it does not appear to be a footer. This should be updated for consistency and use a different color to break it as part of the main page design.

Quality of Material: The quality suffers because much of it is so hard to find. If you you want to learn about SeaWorld and its animals you actually have to leave the site. Want to learn about Shamu? – the famous Orca, or group of Orcas, (they are all called Shamu in the show) you have to go to Shamu.com. If you want to learn about the history of the park, marine conservation or the other animals – you have to go to SeaWorld.org – why this was split up dos not make any sense. Its seems that the main site was simplified to really just be a picture slide show and a ecommerce section.

Community: SeaWorld.com has taken a user generated content (UGC) approach to the design of their main website. All of the images and photos on the site were submitted by park visitors, an interesting strategy because although it offers community participation, it does not encourage the connecting of individuals themselves. It’s like they created a SeaWorld Flickr group – but don’t allow any of the social networking features – an oversight on their part.

Viral Components: No viral, (pull marketing) elements found or were available.

Well they know how to program in Flash, have some CSS knowledge and can do table layouts – all of which they have used to piece together this site.

Site Search: None available – would be nice for users who want to quickly search for something specific – say “park map” But since most of the site’s copy is hidden in Flash you probably wouldn’t get good results anyway, sigh.

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XML/RSS Feeds: Interestingly, I found a list of podcasts you can subscribe too. The page though is setup incorrectly so that there isn’t an icon in your browser bar telling you can subscribe. You have to click on the XML link to go to that page. What SeaWorld visitor knows what an XML page is? My guess is 0.001% – Put the better known RSS orange icon on the main page as that is much better known.

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Analytics: Using the SiteCatalyst the top rated analytics solution from Omniture. Goals would have to be moved to their ecommerce site which resided on a different domain.

Web Standards: Not using XHTML and CSS, but would beneft from doing so for mobile browsing, accessibility and compliance.

SEO: SeaWorld is not paying any attention to search engine optimization (SEO). It almost looks liked they have deliberately kept their site un-optimized. All you are going to show up for in Google with this effort is “seaworld.”

Browser Compatibility: Looks to be OK. I had some issues with browser compatibility when I started the review but it got better later on. I can’t recreate the pages that were unable to load on my home computer leaving empty flash movies.

Functionality is where there were the biggest challenges, but also the biggest opportunities for improvement.

Navigation: A main navigation that exists entirely in Flash thumbnails that cycle themselves and change based on UGC!! If I want to visit pages about different attractions it would be great if I didn’t have to guess which tiny little picture someone submitted means the Pacific Point Reserve. And even if I find it, the image may change later so there’s no repeat association. The navigation changes depending on the page you are on. This is another UX 101 no-no. There should be a main navigation up top that includes:

Home | Locations| Tickets and Vacations | Events | Information | Park Map

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Sitemap: Missing the sitemap, another oversight that could easily be remedied.

Features: The additional features are all good ideas although some of the execution was not done very well

  • They’ve got music playing – which was annoying and I turned off immediately. A few times it turned back on when I went to a new screen. This I did not like.
  • The photo scroller operated too slowly
  • The needs to be updated for design – looks like an Excel spreadsheet. It’s click-able although you wouldn’t know it.
  • The interactive map was something that was pretty neat! – I’d highlight this feature and bring it up into the main navigation.
  • MySeaWorld feature is a a great idea but poorly implemented. I setup the parameters for the visit, but I get taken back to a page that looks exactly like the experiences section. There is no indication that anything has changed, been updated, highlighted, or customized for me at all. I guess that it’s the photos/experiences that have been customized to “My SeaWorld”? This opens in a new window too to configure things and then takes you back to the experiences section – so now I have two windows open showing almost identical things, why?

Ecommerce: I assume the main goal of the site is to drive ticket sales to their parks. This being said the way they go about having you browse their options and buy tickets could be done better. On the tickets and vacations page – or Ajax overall (in some cases) some of the pictures are click-able and some not, again confusing. The corporate packages is a great idea but you have to have a minimum number – which they don’t have next to the quantity so if you put in 12 they’ll tell you on the next screen to go back.

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Overall Score – 1 Star out of 5

  • Brand Strategy – 3 stars
  • Social – 1 Star
  • Technology – 1 Star
  • Functionality – 1 Star

There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement when the A-B team is thinking about updating the site again. Consistent navigation and footers would be a start, sitemaps, and more straight forward functionality that makes sense to the LCD (lowest common denominator) website visitor. Big friendly photos showing off the animals and families having fun is great – we love the connection to the overall experience, The important thing is to tie that back in with having great, easy, useful experience on the website. After all the fun is going to happen in the park, not on your website. Keep somebody guessing and they’ll likely get annoyed – but – make it simple for them and they will reward you with ticket purchases, repeat visitations and referrals to your friends and family.

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4 Responses

  1. Jun 12 2008
    Linda Eskin

    I’ve had to use the site myself, and I couldn’t agree more about the music that Will Not Go Away.

    Props to them, however, on being able to offer e-Vouchers when you sign up for membership. (Possibly provided by a third party… I forget.) Just pay, print them (or email a link), and *voom* you’re off to the park. I’ve bought them myself, and sent them to others as gifts. It’s a great user experience indeed to be able to call someone on a lovely, sunny day, and tell them “Hey, check your email” and they find a nice surprise they can use right away.

    The rest is just stuff I had to wade through to get to what I wanted.

  2. Jun 12 2008
    Rich Page

    I couldn’t agree more about the social side of things. social communities are the biggest thing online right now. why would sea world not want to create a community of its own visitors/fans? surely a great way to market to them! There don’t even offer a newsletter or blog. Very strange. and no sticky content to make people want to come back. so many big companies dont ‘get it’ when it comes to online…

    Rich Page (a web analytics fanatic)
    http://www.rich-page.com

  3. Jun 13 2008
    Alex Funk

    You guys are so right – they really missed the boat when it comes to incorporating more social media, fun elements into their site. These things are so easy!

    I think because they are corporately operated and don;t have their ear to the ground on how to create a UX for today they just don’t get it. There is so much room for improvement, better planning and execution will give them a truly amazing website, one worth of praise from designers and users alike.

  4. Jun 17 2008
    Enrique Gutierrez

    1. Whoever designed this site is either very proud of their creation and think it’s “on brand” with SeaWorld’s Vision? Or they’re laughing all the way to the bank, and secretly hate Shamu.

    2. Rich Media + Social Media… Not only did they miss the mark, but they went to the wrong “agency” to get consultation on this.

    Whichever development team slapped this thing together, did NOT know what they were doing. Has anyone taken the time to look at the source code? Tables, embedded JavaScript, poor SEO practice, misaligned comments for page sections (smells like Dreamweaver 8 to me), anyone care to explain to me why there are inline styles on THE SeaWorld site?

    This project is “FAIL” from end to end, and my guess is, SeaWorld went to the wrong people to get this job done; from the people making the decisions in-house, to the calls made by those people for who get’s the production job out of the house.