It’s Showtime For User Experience

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

As a family man, I don’t often get the opportunity to catch my type of movie on the big screen, but I was recently blessed with two such opportunities. Both films were blockbusters with all of the high budget features and marketing push one would expect, yet I walked away from one of them with seething anger at having wasted such an opportunity. In the days that followed, I came to realize that my emotions had nothing to do with the movies that I watched and everything to do with the difference in theatre experiences (hint – the bad experience was at a ‘traditional’ movie theatre).

There is a new type of movie theatre that’s gaining traction at lightspeed, the type that serves restaurant quality food and drinks in-theatre while you are watching. My favorite of these is the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain, started right here in Austin, because it serves up the most completely satisfying user experience, from admission to lights up. Let’s take a closer look at how “The Drafthouse” (as we locals like to call it) is seizing market share from traditional theatres through its usability improvements.

Even Waiting Can Be Fun

Blockbuster movies are attended more heavily, so even The Drafthouse’s customers must wait in a queue for their auditorium to be readied. What a drag in terms of a user’s first in-theatre experience, right? But not at The Drafthouse – their lobby offers a fully staffed bar, comfortable benches to lounge upon, a gallery of cinema-themed artworks, and smartly placed TV monitors that loop through nostalgic film footage. Dare I say it? Waiting is fun at The Drafthouse. As hardware and software creators, what can we learn from their example when designing the user experience for our less desirable (but necessary) components?

Alamo Drafthouse Lobby

Alamo Drafthouse Lobby

You Can’t Get That At Home

Movie viewers have so many options for consuming films at home that we can justifiably ask, “Why even go out to a theatre?” The Drafthouse has transformed this business threat into one of their differentiating strengths, by ensuring that their auditoriums offer an experience far exceeding the one at home.

First and foremost is the food and beverage service; it’s restaurant quality and you don’t have to leave your seat to get it. Secondly, the experience is made more immersive than home through completely dimmed lights and the stringent requirement that there be no talking, device use or other distractions. And lastly, every film is preceded by a non-stop ‘pregame reel’ of snippets from classic movies, TV shows and commercials that directly relate to what’s about to be viewed, supplanting those mundane in-theatre commercials with a personalized trove of found-footage treasures.

The Drafthouse figured out that customers will come to their theatres if they can’t get the same experience at home. On the hardware and software front, if we want to convert our users into paying customers, then we should honestly consider if our designs offer an experience that can’t be had elsewhere.

Alamo Drafthouse Auditorium

Alamo Drafthouse Auditorium

The Attraction Is Just A Wrapper

It’s no longer a secret that movie theatres don’t profit much from ticket sales, but rather from the concessions that they sell, so The Drafthouse has teflon coated its bottom line by ensuring that their concession experience is best of breed. Their drink selection is as diverse as the “drafthouse” name implies. Theatre patrons order from a menu and consume food prepared by real chefs. Servers take these orders and deliver them to tables. The upshot is that all of their attraction viewers are converted into concession consumers, who eagerly fork over their cash because they perceive a high value in the experience. From this example we can learn that regardless of what originally entices users to try our hardware and software, we must always invest in the experience that is core to our business model with nothing less than best of breed in mind (that is, unless we don’t care much about revenues).

Alamo Drafthouse Concessions

Alamo Drafthouse Concessions

It’s All The Buzz

I can’t even remember which traditional theatres are still in business, but I always seem to know what’s going on at The Drafthouse. Maybe this is because there’s always something(!) going on there – from live music shows, to audience sing-alongs, to movie-themed menus, and cult classic marathons – no week passes without some buzzworthy special event that places them at the forefront of cinematic social media. I would even say that it’s impossible to NOT mention them in any serious discussion of “What to see this weekend?” The Drafthouse has maintained its market leadership through a tireless reinvention of itself, and in doing so has relegated its competitors to afterthoughts. Any hardware or software business that is equally serious about maintaining market leadership should take this into account when considering how often its product should be redesigned for ever-evolving user expectations.

Alamo Drafthouse Austin

Alamo Drafthouse Austin

Film content has been stretched about as far as it can for the purpose of enticing consumers into visiting a movie theatre, or even returning to one on a regular basis. It’s now up to the theatres to provide a user experience that differentiates them from competitors who are offering the same films, or from equivalent experiences at home. The same can be said for the hardware and software we create – content and features must satisfy user expectations for such, but it is the user experience that will ultimately decide which product will dominate its market, for today and into the future.

With special thanks to the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema for its inspiration.



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